The Prime Minister has admitted he has gone back on his word but the mea culpa won’t lessen the hurdles his government faces.
Tony Abbott has acted to stem his government’s political bleeding over broken promises and deadlocked budget measures, but fresh headaches are emerging as the government faces challenges to its legislative agenda well into 2015.
The Prime Minister on Monday conceded he had been forced to break his word over cuts to the ABC because economic circumstances had changed, admitting it was indeed a contradiction to his pre-election pledge.
“I accept that what we are doing with the ABC is at odds with what I said immediately prior to the election but things have moved on, circumstances are different,” he said.
While Mr Abbott was applauded by some on his own side for the approach, his government will face more difficulties in the lead-up to Christmas, including the release of its Financial System Inquiry report and the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.
Politically, a new threat emerged, with Liberal Democratic Party senator David Lehonhjelm threatening to impose a blanket rejection of government bills in the Senate.
He wants a guarantee that his private member’s bill on same-sex marriage will be debated by the coalition party-room and that Coalition members will not be denied a free vote.
The former Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie had already pledged to vote against all government bills until she’s satisfied with the government’s pay offer to the uniformed services.
Mr Abbott gave some ground on that front on Monday restoring half a dozen allowances, but it has not changed Senator Lambie’s position.
Higher education reforms also looked doomed to failure in the Senate in the past few days, punching a $5 billion hole in the budget bottom line and making the second Coalition budget, to be delivered next May, carry a heavier burden of savings.
The Prime Minister’s long-resisted admission that his government’s reduced funding allocation to the national broadcaster was actually “at odds” with his pre-election promise followed a brace of negative commentary, growing internal criticism, and the disastrous election loss for the Napthine Coalition government in Victoria after just one term.
In a gesture transparently designed to clear the decks and described by many as a “mea culpa”, Mr Abbott called a snap press conference on Monday morning in his parliamentary courtyard.
He began by acknowledging that last week’s confusion over the status of the $7 GP co-payment and his refusal to address the ABC cuts squarely had made for a “ragged week” for his government.
The attempted political reset was a recognition by the Prime Minister that his leadership is facing stronger criticism both externally and internally than at any time since taking office in 2013.
“Now, I’d be the first to admit that last week was a bit of a ragged week for the government, I’d be the first to admit that,” Mr Abbott told correspondents in Canberra.
“I read with great interest some of the assessments that some of you offered of the government’s performance over the weekend [and] I’d like, if I may, to take some of those head on.”
He then went through a list of government achievements through 2014, arguing that voters would come around eventually despite the harshness of some decisions.
But as the government entered its last fractious parliamentary week for the year, its chances of securing breakthroughs on controversial measures were looking bleak.
Not only was its GP co-payment stranded with no crossbench backing, but its university deregulation changes were also deadlocked with insufficient support to get them through – even after stripping out planned higher student loan charges.
The result is a government apparently unsure as to how to proceed.
Fairfax Media understands a weekly “leaders and whips” meeting on Monday at which the government’s Senate leader, Eric Abetz, talks to all the other parties’ leader and flags legislation to be debated, broke up in disarray with Opposition and crossbench senators bemused and laughing at the government’s lack of certainty about the numbers.
One source claimed the government did not seem to know which bills it wanted to put forward and what levels of support individual bills might attract.
The challenge exercising Mr Abbott and his Treasurer Joe Hockey now is whether to include new savings initiatives in the Mid-Year-Economic and Fiscal Outlook snapshot due out in a fortnight, or not.
Mr Hockey believes the health of the economy and the protection of slowly building consumer confidence is the important consideration and favours a light touch on savings in MYEFO despite what the Senate’s intransigence has done to the budget.
Asked if the Mr Hockey’s second budget would have to be more severe to make up for lost savings measures so far, Mr Abbott said no.
“I’m not sure that you should assume that,” he told reporters.
“So, while we are always looking for sensible savings, I think that the fundamental decisions were made in this budget and this gives us the foundation on which we can build.”