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Tony has a rough start, with tough times ahead

Michelle Grattan /

In the week he formally took power, Tony Abbott managed to perform according to his old stereotype – that is, badly on a matter concerning women.

On the other side, as the Labor party declared it was embarking on a new open democratic path, there were reports that behind the scenes some were trying to make it like the old factional way.

Living up to being their better selves, in the phase currently fashionable in politics, is not as easy as promising to do so.

Abbott is talking about a “measured” start but it has been a messy one. The dearth of women in the ministry, including only one in cabinet, is a bad look on a simple matter – it will register with many in the community who don’t tune into much about politics. The ministry itself wasn’t the worst of it. To have only one woman in the frontbench “kindergarten” – parliamentary secretary level – was ill judged and hard to understand.

Equally difficult to comprehend was why the highly qualified Arthur Sinodinos was dudded for the finance job. Abbott had earlier intended to give it to him. His suggestion that people have to do their apprenticeship begs the question of why he had not thought this when he had wanted Sinodinos.

Abbott’s influential chief of staff Peta Credlin is being blamed by some; the name of a senior minister is also being mentioned.

However it precisely happened, there are already complaints in Liberal ranks about the close cabal around Abbott, including Credlin and cabinet ministers George Brandis and Christopher Pyne.

The worry about Abbott as PM has always been that he would be too easily influenced by a narrow range of people. To be his “best self”, he needs the broadest advice, a flat office structure with only a limited filter, and plenty of contesting of arguments.

The public breakout over science, parental leave and other issues from Liberal backbencher Dennis Jensen doesn’t matter in itself (Jensen is an outrider) but could point to future difficulties in managing the backbench.

There was a suggestion Liberal backbencher Kelly O’Dwyer was passed over partly for a parliamentary secretaryship because she is forthright. With many talented MPs knowing that barring accidents, Abbott won’t be rushing to reshuffle, some of them may be reluctant to be seen and never heard. If they can’t get to the frontbench a few may seek a profile on the backbench.

Abbott’s sacking of three departmental heads, and forcing Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson to depart next year left a bad taste. It looked like a dose of spite, “getting” people associated with “them”. A warning was also being dispatched to other senior public servants. Watch yourselves – we’re in charge now.

Abbott doesn’t seem to know quite what message he wants to convey to the public. That he’s proceeding cautiously and carefully. Or that he’s determined to do everything instantly.

Day one was not just to be enjoyed with the rellies at the swearing in – it was declared a day of action. The head of Operation Sovereign Borders has been appointed with some flurry. Yesterday the Climate Commission was sacked.

The PM is still repeating his mantras – he even gave a speech at Government House – almost afraid to venture into new scripting.

He’s come in with a program, a lot of it to dismantle things, and he’s ticking off the list as fast as possible.

But there are some issues ahead that will test the government in its early days. They won’t be easy tick offs.

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