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Yes, Mr Abbott, things are ‘a bit out of control’

Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks with a child after laying a wreath on Eddie Mabo’s grave on Mer Island in the Torres Strait on Monday. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

I think it is a bit out of control and I think it’s important … not just to talk about tighter management … but actually do it.

Tony Abbott would have been absolutely right – if he had been speaking about the government rather than Monday’s Q&A program, when an offensive tweet referring to him got aired.

If Abbott and his colleagues had applied the same sharp focus to their own affairs in the last few months as they have to a TV program, they might be in better shape.

This week’s Newspoll reinforced the familiar story. Labor retains a 54-46% two-party lead; the Coalition’s primary vote is down one point to 38%, one point behind Labor, steady on 39%.

The movements are in the leaders’ ratings. Satisfaction with Abbott was down three points to 30%; dissatisfaction went up two points to 63%. Bill Shorten’s satisfaction rose five points to 34%; dissatisfaction with him fell five to 52%. Shorten led Abbott as better prime minister 40% (up two points) to 35% (down three points).

Shorten is not charismatic; Labor still struggles to find a policy story. But the government’s hopes that the opposition leader would by this time be near dead from wounds inflicted by the union royal commission – and the ALP conference - have been disappointed.

Now we’re waiting to hear from the badly wounded commissioner, Dyson Heydon, who has delayed his statement about his future. Heydon is considering his position because he accepted an invitation to deliver a Liberal-sponsored lecture, from which he later withdrew.

For the second day running the commission issued a statement saying Heydon was not yet ready to make his announcement. “Commissioner Heydon is taking the time required to consider his decision. A further update will be provided in due course,” it said.

In dealing with the unions’ argument that he should stand down on the grounds of “apprehended bias”, Heydon has to consider what “a fair-minded lay observer might reasonably” think. Tuesday’s Essential poll tells him what members of the public think: 38% believed there was a conflict of interest and he should step down; 25% said there was no conflict and he should continue.

Abbott said on Tuesday that regardless of what Heydon decides, “the royal commission must and will go on”. In the Essential polling, 39% thought the commission was a legitimate investigation of union practices, while 27% said it was a political attack on Labor and the unions.

Abbott this week is in the Torres Strait and Cape York spending time in Indigenous communities, with a number of ministers dropping in and some nice pictures for the TV. Meanwhile, things haven’t been going so well in the south.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Monday announced a blow out in the cost of the NBN, from A$41 billion to between $46 billion and $56 billion – awkward, given all the Coalition had said about the Labor government’s version of the massive project. (By the way, Turnbull was on Q&A watch, ringing ABC managing director Mark Scott early Tuesday about the tweet; Scott texted an apology to Abbott.)

Treasurer Joe Hockey struck particularly heavy weather with his speech on the need for income tax cuts, the reception ranging from sceptical (where’s the money coming from?) to hostile (the head of an accountancy peak body declared Hockey was “caught in a cycle of restating the problems rather than rethinking the solutions”).

If any policy area needs some “tighter management” it must surely be tax reform. Lots of work is going on behind the scenes but publicly the messaging is just causing mounting frustration.

Also needing management is the same-sex marriage issue. Abbott has promised to come back to cabinet with details of a process to be followed.

Abbott committed the government to a people’s vote in a second term. It is expected this would be a plebiscite not a referendum.

The Essential polling indicates that Abbott has hit on a popular approach: 66% think there should be a national vote; 22% believe the question should be decided by parliament.

But the rub for Abbott is that only 11% think a national vote should be after the election, the only time he will contemplate. An overwhelming majority believe it should be either on the same day as the election (43%) or before (35%).

The public’s opinion on when the vote should be makes sense. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Abbott is basing his timing on what he thinks would give him the best chance of holding off change.

Early next month, the government passes the second anniversary of its election. Its record of positive achievements is much thinner than most who voted for it would have wanted. Its management style has been poor and often chaotic.

And – to Abbott’s notable frustration – Q&A hasn’t even shifted its location within the ABC bureaucracy yet.

Postscript: Meanwhile, there has been a touch of reflection on Abbott from Rupert Murdoch who last week dined with Abbott and lunched with Scott Morrison. Murdoch has been reading When We Were Young and Foolish, the account by Greg Sheridan, Abbott’s friend, of their youths. “Tony Abbott always the happy warrior. Win or lose, usually win, and clever fighter,” tweeted Murdoch.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, Nationa;s MP Michael McCormack, here.

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