News National Abbott-era welfare leak looks like more of the same for the Coalition in 2018

Abbott-era welfare leak looks like more of the same for the Coalition in 2018

Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott2
Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott initially opposed Labor's tax lurk, but changed their minds in government. Photo: AAP
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The leaking of a four-year-old Abbott cabinet welfare document could only have come from the Labor Party.

That was the frustrated explanation of one of the government’s spin doctors after the ABC revealed documents on Monday showing Tony Abbott’s “razor gang” seriously considered stopping welfare payments to “job snobs” aged under 30.

Bill Shorten’s office scoffed at the idea that anyone in the opposition was behind the leak. One senior flack made the entirely reasonable observation that no one in Labor was a member of the government’s cabinet.

But the thinking behind the Liberal deflection of blame to its political opponents was also entirely plausible: no one with the government’s best interests at heart would leak a story on the very day the Prime Minister was making a major defence industry announcement.

Those fascinated by the dark arts of politics always apply the “who benefits” test to the unauthorised release of secret documents.

Labor’s Anthony Albanese was quick to seize on the story to point the finger of blame back on the Liberal Party. He said it can only be designed “to cause pain to Tony Abbott, and it’s part of the ongoing warfare that’s occurring within the Liberal Party at the top”.

Mr Albanese’s assertion is based on another principle applied to leaks: organisations and governments “leak from the top”. Malcolm Turnbull’s office denies any complicity.

What is interesting, neither the former prime minister or one of his staunchest allies, former cabinet minister Eric Abetz, are apologetic for seriously looking at ways to repair the budget.

History records Mr Abbott’s credibility collapsed as PM when the harsh 2014 budget broke every promise he made on the eve of his landslide election win.

One of the beneficiaries of the story was the Abbott government’s then social services minister Kevin Andrews. He comes out looking smarter than his prime minister. Now, like Mr Abbott banished to the backbench, he saw the political risks and the inherent harshness in the proposals and argued successfully against the more egregious ones.

The fact that the national broadcaster gave such prominence to the story does remind everyone that the divisions that have beset the Coalition since the 2010 Turnbull “coup” have not gone away. They are as damaging as ever.

Definitely more damaging than the government’s disarray over how to deal with our major trading partner China in light of the United States, our major ally, declaring that Russia and China are a greater threat than Islamic terrorism.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce says it’s “a statement of the bleeding obvious”. Defence minister Marise Payne notes that “Australia shares similar concerns”.

Oh no we don’t, according to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister.

Mr Turnbull says “we don’t see threats from our neighbours in the region” with the possible exception of North Korea. While Julie Bishop makes a point of begging to differ with Washington: “We do not see Russia or China posing a threat to Australia.” She says.

The opposition says Australia should be looking to include China in major trade pacts, not exclude her as in the latest version of the Trans Pacific Partnership.

But Mr Shorten will be focussing on domestic issues and the cost of living battles of everyday Australians when he addresses the National Press Club on Tuesday.

He will need to show more of his policy hand if he wants to remain in the front-running position up to the election later this year.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics.

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