The Prime Minister must hate Tuesdays in sitting weeks. That’s when he faces the joint party room, and backbenchers get to vent their views.
This sitting fortnight – the last before the six-week winter break – has been marked by headlines talking of revolts. Revolts over energy policy in the first week, revolts over education funding in the second week.
The cameras aren’t allowed in to witness any bloodletting. So reports of showdowns or confrontations are second-hand, massaged by the druthers of the sources.
An example last week was talk of 20 MPs rejecting Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target (CET). Senior Liberals were quick to point out, on background, that most of those 20 were Nationals and they don’t get a vote in any Liberal leadership ballot.
No, but they do get a big say in what the Turnbull Coalition government gets to put to the Parliament and their votes are absolutely crucial to the legislation passing both houses.
Besides, who is talking of a leadership ballot? No one is seriously doing that for now but as Newspoll continues to have the government trailing Labor badly for the 14th consecutive time, the thought is clearly playing with minds.
And nobody should dismiss this “outbreak of party democracy,” as the PM’s office described it, as the way most innocent bystanders view it.
Indeed, the 53-47 Newspoll result can be explained by further confirmation that this government looks like it is at war with itself.
Division is political death – something former prime minister Tony Abbott knows only too well.
He gives credibility to the perception of conflict within the Liberal Party by publicly contributing to it. Rejecting a CET as nothing more than a carbon tax and now hinting that a bad deal for Catholic schools may not garner his support.
The Prime Minister is keen to land his Gonski 2.0 schools funding package this week. Intense negotiations are under way with the Greens and the crossbench. Labor is intractably opposed but that is only half of it. The Coalition party room is the other half.
Mr Abbott’s doubts have been given strong support by his ally Kevin Andrews. The Victorian Liberal is very concerned over the Department of Education showing public schools would be $4 billion better off over the next decade while Catholic schools would be $4.6 billion worse off than under current arrangements.
This is not what the party room was told, he says, and he is also unimpressed that he or other Liberals would be expected to support amendments or a deal hammered out with the Greens.
Mr Andrews calls this “madness”. He is not alone. Other backbenchers worried about a Catholic parent backlash in their electorates say Education Minister Simon Birmingham should be giving ground to the Catholics rather than to the Greens.
Then like a bolt out of the blue, retiring Liberal senator Chris Back is threatening to cross the floor. A former member of the Catholic Education Commission in WA, he wants a year’s delay while the basis of the government’s funding model faces an inquiry.
Senator Birmingham is disposed to give it to him if it is the price of his vote before he quits the Senate on Friday.
There is something bizarre about the education funding debate. It is over 10 years, beyond the forward estimates and includes two federal elections.
The last 10-year plan lasted four years. The Gillard government signed up for six years of it with some of the states, the Catholics and independents and gave a commitment to the final four years.
Mr Turnbull decries this as a “a political hoax”. Which raises the question: why is his 10-year plan anything more real?
Sure, there is more money being put back in after Mr Abbott removed a huge whack but it is no showstopper for the schools funding wars even if it survives any revolt in the party room.
Labor, the education unions, state governments and the Catholic Education Commission will see to that.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno