The duds and dazzlers on Abbott's frontbench

A series of budget blunders have put the Abbott government under serious pressure in the opinion polls, but a Cabinet reshuffle could help it get back on track and realise its vision for Australia.

Unless there is a dramatic improvement in the government’s performance during the current parliamentary sitting, Joe Hockey is in great danger of losing the Treasury portfolio, and Christopher Pyne and Peter Dutton will be under pressure in education and health.

We can now see clearly who the outstanding performers are in government ranks and why the government finds itself in so much trouble in the opinion polls.

Among the outstanding performers are Julie Bishop, Andrew Robb, and Scott Morrison. Increasingly, Mathias Cormann is looking like a winner in finance. 

Joe Hockey could be a great Treasurer but he got caught in two strategic mistakes and, as so often happens, the pressure they created led him to stumble in other areas, including when he inferred that poor people don’t drive as much as rich people.

The Abbott government came to power with the most detailed plan ever put together by an opposition party. The main author of that plan was Andrew Robb.

The plan was designed to reduce expenditures but at the same time offered a vision for the future. When Tony Abbott finalised his cabinet, Robb was taken away from the task of implementing his plan via the finance portfolio and given a chunk of the vision in trade and tourism.

After that, leaving aside wins on the carbon tax and stopping the boats, it was all downhill. The government decided extra expenditure measures were required because the long-term deficit they had inherited was greater than expected. But while the education plan put forward by Christopher Pyne and the medical co-payment plan put forward by Peter Dutton were well-intentioned, they were not thought out as well as they would have been had they been part of the original Robb plan. 

Add the fuel excise change and a few other nasties that were not in the Robb plan, and suddenly the government was battling with the Senate on far too many fronts. Worse still, when the government added the extra nasties, it did not drop off the increased spending options like paid parental leave and research, so it tried to sell savage cuts and new expenditures at the same time. That’s a high-risk strategy. 

However, it had forgotten the vision of Robb’s plan. As Jeff Kennett and Paul Keating will tell you, governments can’t go hard on expenditure cuts if there is no vision.

Given the confusing signals from Abbott, Clive Palmer had a ball. But he behaved so badly that he used up enormous political capital, which should give the government another chance.

While by no means impossible, it is going to be hard for Hockey to stage a comeback.

If he doesn’t, I would reshuffle the Hockey-Robb-Cormann trio, giving Hockey trade and making either Robb or Cormann treasurer, and making the the other the finance minister. Robb and Cormann in combination will help smarten up Pyne and Dutton.

Tony Abbott needs to start selling the Robb vision of the new Australia which was so brilliantly set out at the ADC Leadership conference (The one minister who has a vision for Australia, August 19). In addition, Abbott needs to embrace the visions of Bruce Billson in job creation via small enterprises, Eric Abetz in commercial construction and Malcolm Turnbull in communication.

If Abbott fails to do that, then Australia has a magnificent deputy prime minister who can replace him. But I am sure Tony Abbott will be too smart not to make the required changes if his current approach does not deliver in the August-September parliamentary sittings.