As much he tried to avoid it, the real political story of the week was prime minister Tony Abbott’s diminishing control over his most senior ministers.
Members of the cabinet have been squabbling for weeks, firstly over the PM’s handling of a proposal to strip Australians of their citizenship if they consort with terrorists, and most recently over gay marriage.
Such disagreements are not necessarily a problem, but they become so when confidential discussions are leaked to the media. Leaks of this kind forced Mr Abbott to warn cabinet colleagues about loose lips back in June and yet, despite a “come to Jesus moment” having apparently taken place, a second reading of the riot act was required this week.
This information was promptly leaked, as were government MPs’ suggested talking points which variously claimed that grass is blue, the sky is green, and Cabinet is working “exceptionally well”.
Leader of the government in the Senate, Eric Abetz, almost immediately defied this order to denounce his leaking colleagues as gutless.
Unsurprisingly, given the poor state of the polls and the obvious fracturing of the PM’s authority, news stories also emerged that leadership aspirants Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison were sounding out their colleagues to see if supporters of Mr Abbott had changed their views since the non-spill vote in February.
A whacking with the jobs stick
The PM was visitung local businesses and talking up the economic benefits of the recent free trade agreement with China (known as CHAFTA).
Mr Abbott also used the jobs stick to beat up on opposition leader Bill Shorten, firstly by depicting Labor’s refusal to denounce union criticism of foreign workers being allowed under CHAFTA as xenophobia if not racism.
The PM also used the government’s proposed change to environmental protection laws, which aims to stop activists from using the laws to frustrate the approval and development of mining operations, to wedge Mr Shorten over the supposed choice between protecting the environment or jobs.
The PM appears not to have realised how this change will also be of concern to farmers protesting against coal-seam gas operations, or the fine upstanding members of the community who are opposed to wind farms.
Double dissolution looking very unattractive
As foreshadowed last week in The Political Weekly, the Senate again rejected proposed legislation to establish a union watchdog, thereby delivering the government its first double dissolution trigger from the “new” Senate (which came into being on 1 July 2014).
It’s highly unlikely the PM is considering an early election however, given the continuing refusal of voters to come back to the Coalition fold.
Yet there’s no avoiding the by-election to be held in the WA seat of Canning on 19 September, due to the sudden death of Liberal MP Don Randall.
By-elections are traditionally a way for voters to give poorly performing governments a kick in the pants, without the attendant risk of changing the government.
An opinion poll this week suggests that kick could be considerably painful, with as much as a 10 per cent swing expected against the government.
Given that Mr Randall had an 11.8 per cent margin, it’s no wonder Liberal leadership agitators are painting the by-election as a pivotal test for Mr Abbott.
We saw what you did there PM
Yet another news story the PM did his best to avoid this week was the proposed cross-party bill to legalise gay marriage.
At exactly the same time as the bill’s chief advocate, Liberal MP Warren Entsch, was introducing it to the parliament, Mr Abbott held a media event that required journalists to travel to a location outside of Parliament House.
Incidentally, Cabinet Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne were the only Government frontbenchers to show up for Entsch’s speech.
And you too Julie Bishop
The occasional leadership aspirant, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, has until recently remained enigmatically silent on the gay marriage question.
This was interpreted as Minister Bishop courting the conservatives who have crucial party room votes, and this perception was reinforced when she pushed for a people’s vote during the party room discussion on the matter last week.
However, Ms Bishop tactically made it known this week that she may support gay marriage after all.
Meanwhile, back at TURC …
With the government doing a fine job of making itself look incompetent, Labor did its best this week to keep the heat on union royal commissioner, Dyson Heydon, in the hope of discrediting him and closing down the inquiry.
Somewhat bizarrely, Mr Heydon must be the one decide whether he is fit to continue in the role.
He heard evidence from several unions demanding his resignation on Friday, and will decide early next week whether to sack himself.