Knightmare on L-NP street: Abbott Government brawls now number 50

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Open dismay among Tony Abbott’s ministers at his gong for Prince Philip on Monday brings the issues on which senior Coalition people are at each others’ throats to the round half-century. Alan Austin reports.

FIFTY ISSUES now split the Abbott Government. None of them is trivial. They all impact the capacity to govern.

They raise many questions the mainstream media is conspicuously failing to address.

Is this the most divided government in the Westminster world ever?

Are there fundamental contradictions within the Coalition which render effective decision-making impossible?

Were these unresolvable conflicts evident in Opposition, but papered over by craven Canberra commentators committed to delivering Coalition victory, however incompetent and divided its ranks?

When will these divisions lead to another leadership contest?

And crucially, is there any way this Government under any leader can continue for another 20 months when the first 16 have been so abysmally dysfunctional?

This list counts backwards chronologically, each with a link to details.

50. Knighthoods

Abbott's cabinet colleagues are reportedly publicly 'bewildered, angered and dismayed’ by his unilateral decision to knight Prince Philip.

49. Medicare backflips

Ministers committed to slugging patients more for medical care include Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Small Business Minister Bruce Billson and former Health Minister Peter Dutton. Those against – who seem to have won the latest stoush – include new Health Minister Sussan Ley.

48. Drought assistance

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce referred to colleagues as “the shits in cabinet” after they refused more aid for drought-stricken farmers last month.

47. Workchoices

Former Howard Government minister Peter Reith slammed Abbott for ‘not lifting a finger’ on industrial relations. Workchoices remains divisive within the Abbott camp.

46. Bishop to Peru

Abbott’s office vetoed Foreign Minister Julie Bishop attending the UN climate meeting last month. Bishop, according to a colleague, first “went bananas”, then went over the PM’s head for cabinet approval.

But she did not go alone. Abbott assigned climate change sceptic Trade Minister Andrew Robb as "chaperone".

45. Navy ships

The internal punch-up over the capacity of Australian companies to fill defence contracts led to a second ministerial sacking (after Arthur Sinodinos). Defence Minister David Johnston lost his job.

44. Scott Morrison to social security

Abbott copped a savage serve from respected Liberal elder John Valder on Christmas Eve:

‘Tony Abbott will never learn. His harsh and inhumane policies on refugees, young people, the unemployed and so on have already (and deservedly) earned him acute unpopularity. Now he appoints his henchman Morrison to apply his blowtorch to all social welfare recipients.’

The former NSW and federal party president’s open letter concluded:

‘I have to say shame on you Abbott, Morrison and Hockey ... you will have dumped on the entire Liberal Party community.’

43. Direct climate action

The Nationals almost torpedoed the November legislation in bitter backroom brawls.

The Nats are reported to have told the Libs:

‘We’re loyal partners. We’re in the trenches together ... But don’t step over us again.’

The Nats reportedly said the Libs were "shitting themselves" over the threat.

42. Asia Pacific infrastructure investment bank

Trade Minister Robb and Treasurer Hockey persuaded cabinet to support China’s proposal for the new bank. Foreign Minister Bishop then used the cabinet's National Security Committee to roll the two men.

41. Burqa ban

The unseemly spat between Abbott and Speaker Bronwyn Bishop simmered publicly for several days in October. The PM claimed he was unaware of the speaker’s ruling to isolate women wearing burqas inside Parliament House. Colleagues publicly challenged Abbott’s truthfulness.

40. Local v faction preselections

Former Howard government minister Jackie Kelly resigned in disgust from the Liberal Party during a bitter dispute over preselections.

She condemned

"... the corrosive control that self interested lobbyists have over the NSW Liberal Party."

39. ANU divestment

The National University’s decision to sell its fossil fuel shares sparked a heavyweight fight between Abbott, Hockey, Environment Minister Greg Hunt, Education Minister Christopher Pyne and Assistant Minister Jamie Briggs who opposed the sell-off and party elders John Hewson and Malcolm Fraser who supported the decision.

38. Anti-corruption

The proposal for a federal independent commission against corruption continues to divide Liberals. NSW Libs insist this is essential, while the Federal Libs are implacably opposed.

37. Renewable energy target

Scrapping the RET splits the cabinet. Greg Hunt, Abbott and others want it scaled back. Christopher Pyne, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and others want it to stay.

36. Youth welfare

The bipartisan parliamentary Human Rights Committee, chaired by Liberal Dean Smith, embarrassed the PM and treasurer, and exposed further divisions, when it found that the May budget proposal to impose a six months wait for welfare payments breached human rights. So did the proposed age criteria.

35. Abbott’s metadata decree

The August decision forcing telecommunications companies to keep customers’ phone and internet records for two years dismayed, not only industry and voters, but also Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull who had not been consulted.

According to The Age:

‘... to Turnbull it appeared to be a calculated effort by the Prime Minister’s office to humiliate him.’

34. Hockey’s arrogance towards the poor

Outrage was expressed within Coalition ranks at Hockey’s offensive comments following his failed May budget.

According to Fairfax:

‘... furious ministerial colleagues turned on the Treasurer over comments they variously described as "stupid and wrong", a "bad example of how to make a point" and "loose language".’

33. Racial discrimination

Abbott infuriated half his Coalition colleagues with his decision before the last election to abolish section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Indigenous Liberal MP Ken Wyatt vowed to cross the floor to oppose any change.

Abbott then infuriated the other half when he broke that promise in August.

Former WA Liberal leader Bill Hassell condemned the backflip as

"... an unconditional surrender to narrow interest groups against the interests of the Australian people."

32. Anti-terror laws

Former Liberal federal treasurer Peter Costello mocked Abbott’s inept anti-terror response:

'Does the government believe there are leaders in our community whose commitment to their fellow citizens and the values of a civilised society is so weak they will not co-operate in preventing terror and murder if section 18C is repealed? If that is the case we really do have a problem.'

31. Team Australia

Former Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser blasted Abbott – not for the first time – over his "Team Australia" rhetoric. The ex-PM described Abbott’s language as "divisive”, “counter-productive” and “terrible”. Peter Costello joined the attack.

30. Bypassing the Senate

Coalition frontbenchers denounced Joe Hockey for threatening in July to slash funding outside the usual parliamentary process.

A senior Liberal accused Hockey of opening up another front for attacks:

"It was a gift to Labor … it was an own goal."

29. Hockey v Turnbull

Personal bitterness between Hockey and Turnbull was exposed in July with the release of the biography Hockey: Not your average Joe. The book quoted Hockey’s wife saying he would never trust Turnbull.

28. ABC top jobs

Bizarrely, the decision by the prime minister’s department to stack the ABC with Liberal Party activists was taken without consulting the responsible minister.

While Malcolm Turnbull withheld overt criticism, he confirmed he had been bypassed and admitted:

“... there is concern about politics in all of this."

27. Abbott’s sexism

Retiring Liberal Senator Sue Boyce described Julia Gillard's famous misogyny speech as “powerful” and “a brilliant speech”.

But she disagreed with the former PM labelling Abbott a misogynist:

“It would have been more accurate if she had called him a sexist."

26. Fuel excise Libs v Nats

National Party MPs were played for suckers over raising the fuel excise when the Liberals pretended they wanted also to chop the diesel fuel rebate. In a "deal" to "save" their precious diesel rebate, the Nats agreed to raise petrol excise.

It worked. Liberals have since bragged about how they ‘played the Nats’.

25. Paid parental leave

Abbott’s colleagues are deeply divided over his pet scheme. Nationals Ron Boswell, John Williams and Barry O’Sullivan say they will cross the Senate floor to oppose it.

24. Asylum seekers

Former Liberal Party chief John Valder describes Abbott’s policies as ‘harsh and inhumane’.

Former senator Sue Boyce said

"I think the whole asylum seeker issue is sort of fraught with dog whistling." 

Malcolm Fraser claims Abbott has "destroyed the rule of law as we know it" by giving the immigration minister "dictatorial, tyrannical powers" over the lives of asylum seekers.

23. Liberal Party constitution

Federal ministers Christopher Pyne and George Brandis brawled openly in June over proposed changes to the party’s constitution and procedures for making changes.

22. Cutting science funding

Liberal ex-premier of Victoria Jeff Kennett condemned

“... removing money from science when we have a very good record in science, whether it's medical, whether it's engineering, whether it's the cochlear, whether it's CSL ... We can't afford to start sending out messages, not only to the world, but to our young, that science and engineering aren't two of the highest priorities.”

21. Unfair May budget

The punitive 2014 Federal Budget was vigorously supported by Abbott, Hockey, Cormann and others. It was openly attacked by Liberal NSW Premier Mike Baird and ex-Liberal leaders Malcolm Fraser, John Hewson and Jeff Kennet. Anonymous leaks from Coalition MPs confirm widespread internal dissent.

20. Lack of vision

John Hewson laments this glaring failure:

“There’s no clear, consistent message, other than, ‘We have to cut and cut more just to get the budget numbers’, not with any reform purpose. It’s unfair and it’s inconsistent. A bit of vision is what’s really called for.”

Jeff Kennett agrees:

“I've always believed that leadership is not difficult, but leadership requires simplicity, good people, a vision ... I'm worried, terribly worried.”

19. ABC independence

Abbott attacked the ABC last January for reporting news critical of Australia’s military. Malcolm Turnbull openly repudiated the PM.

18. Saving SPC

Cabinet members Ian Macfarlane and Barnaby Joyce wanted fruit company SPC saved through a rescue package last January, as did local Liberal MP Sharman Stone. After an acrimonious fight, Hockey and Abbott knocked them all off.

Those are the latest 33 areas of conflict. The first 17 all arose within the first four months and were listed here at IA in December 2013.

Several of these, notably ABC funding, same-sex marriage and the power of Peta Credlin, have intensified since that report.

Retaining the original numbering, those issues were:

1. Same sex marriage

2. Cabinet solidarity

3. The Liberal club

4. Ministerial portfolios

5. Order to sack family members

6. Honouring Gary Humphries

7. Marginalising MPs

8. Peta Credlin’s power

9. Travel rorts scandal

10. School funding fiasco

11. Grain Corp sale

12. Holden closure

13. Badgerys Creek airport

14. ABC and SBS funding

15. Wage levels

16. Relations with Indonesia

17. Northern development

That makes an even 50 — in 16 months. Are there more to come? Almost certainly. Such is Australia’s doom.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @alantheamazing.

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