Abbott's fortnight of blunders and stuff-ups

COMMENT

Friday is a red-letter day for the Abbott government.

It marks 100 days since any successful people-smuggling venture has made it to Australia.

The government has not been shy about its Operation Sovereign Borders milestone nor for that matter the 30 or 40 daily increments leading up to it.

It comes ironically enough, at the fag-end of the most mistake-laden fortnight for the government since the travel entitlements debacle marred its first weeks in office.

Back then Tony Abbott had been strangely absent, his minimalist approach erroneously designed to position him as the opposite of the news cycle-obsessed Rudd-Gillard outfits.

What it actually conveyed was a government without a message and a prime minister without a firm hand on the wheel.

Opinion polls reflected this vacuum and by the close of 2013, press gallery journalists were being backgrounded to the effect that things would change in 2014.

Abbott’s performance since has been more positive and the government had looked to be settling in.

But the sitting fortnight just concluded, the last before the May budget session, has been anything but impressive, starting out badly and getting steadily worse.

And with each day, the prime minister’s normally confident body language in parliament has chronicled that slide.

First came the storm over the past business dealings of his assistant treasurer, Arthur Sinodinos.

Sinodinos stood down from his post last week pending Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings into Australian Water Holdings, but it wasn’t Abbott’s doing. He continued to enthusiastically spruik the imminent return of Sinodinos to the ministry.

In any event, the voluntary suspension has failed to defuse the issue amid new testimony at ICAC that Sinodinos was expressly warned of governance problems including the possible insolvency of AWH, when he was chairman in 2010.

Sinodinos himself will give evidence to the first of two ICAC inquiries next week, with commissioner Megan Latham pointedly leaving open the possibility on Wednesday of an actual corruption finding against Sinodinos - ostensibly the government’s chief ministerial guardian of corporate governance - if he is judged to have breached his duties as a company director. Counsel assisting the inquiry, Geoffrey Watson, SC, appears hot-to-trot on this score, arguing the ICAC Act contains a section dealing with corrupt conduct which ''seems to be capable of being applied’’ to directors’ duties ‘‘depending on the facts which emerge’’ in this case.

This has become a running sore for Abbott. Colleagues worry that Abbott’s support will make it harder to cut the minister loose if needed, but it might actually make it easier, allowing the Prime Minister to explain the dismissal as anything but a personal preference.

Either way, there is a noticeable cooling of support for Sinodinos’ return. And there is other fallout too, such as the related decision this week to suspend imminent legislation undoing Labor’s Future of Financial Advice reforms. The FoFA law had ended the lucrative practice of financial advisers taking hidden commissions associated with particular investment products. It also required advisers selling such products to act in the interests of consumers. The suspension of the rollback was a bad look if only because it felt messy and fuelled the appearance that there may have been a conflict of interest in Sinodinos’s championing of the bank-friendly change given his past role as an NAB executive.

The decision to consult further was made by Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who assumed responsibility for FoFA from his ousted colleague following pressure from the usually conservative National Seniors. Its members stand to lose vital consumer protections under the changes.

Some Liberals are critical of the consultation work done by Sinodinos, noting that even the Financial Planning Association peak body had expressed reservations about the reintroduction of commissions for general financial advice, despite complaining of a welter of new regulations since FoFA came in.

On top of these problems came Attorney-General George Brandis' ham-fisted sales job for his changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. His legally correct yet politically insane observation, that people have a right to be bigots, was an horrendous own-goal.

Then came the Prime Minister’s stunning return to old empire via the restoration of knights and dames in the Australian awards system.

One Liberal observed that not even John Howard had wanted to turn the clock that far back and right on cue, Howard himself confirmed it, telling Fairfax Media, that even conservatives would view the move as ‘‘somewhat anachronistic".

Howard used to rail against Labor’s tendency to govern for section interests.

But this week, it was the Abbott government which turned its back on mainstream opinion to pander to a couple of mouthy conservative commentators wanting to legalise hate speech, a cloister of protected banks wanting to reintroduce skimming, and a tiny cluster of 19th century monarchists.

Little wonder the Prime Minister has been ashen-faced in parliament this week.

Mark Kenny is chief political correspondent.

smh.com.au

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