Tony Abbott’s office has ‘obsessive centralised control phobia’

Liberal National backbencher lashes out at government’s handling of inquiry into development of northern Australia

ian macdonald coalition senator

Ian Macdonald is “incensed” that two key elements have been left out of the instructions for the new joint select committee on northern Australia. Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

A Liberal National party senator has lashed out at Tony Abbott’s office for displaying an “obsessive centralised control phobia” over every aspect of parliament, saying he will not be bossed around by “unelected advisers”.

The veteran Queensland senator, Ian Macdonald, who has voiced his disappointment at being passed over for a front bench post, levelled the fresh criticism over the government’s handling of an inquiry into the development of northern Australia.

Some Coalition members have privately raised questions about the level of control exercised by Abbott’s office, headed by chief of staff Peta Credlin, but Macdonald chose to make his views public in a short address to parliament on Wednesday.

Macdonald said he was “incensed” that two key elements had been left out of the instructions for the new joint select committee on northern Australia, including an examination of the zone tax system and a definitive programme towards sustainable development in the region.

He said there had been little or no consultation with senators with a special interest in the north over the terms of reference, arguing that the prime minister’s office seemed to have “an almost obsessive centralised control phobia over this and every aspect of parliament”.

Moving an amendment in the Senate on Wednesday, Macdonald said such action should not have been necessary, but the terms of reference that he “eventually discovered almost by accident” were not in accord with the Coalition’s previously stated aims.

Macdonald pointedly declared he was “not elected to this parliament by the prime minister’s office but by the Liberal National party of Queensland and by the voters of Queensland, particularly those in the north”.

“I have to advise them and my constituents that I’ll not have unelected advisers in the prime minister’s office telling elected politicians who are actually in touch with their constituencies what should and shouldn’t be done,” he said.

The original terms of reference asked for recommendations on establishing “a conducive regulatory and economic environment” in northern Australia. Macdonald’s amendment makes clear that taxation should be part of this examination.

Before the election, the Coalition promised to develop within 12 months a white paper on policy options, including building on existing key urban zones such as Darwin, Cairns, Townsville and Karratha.

“To this end, the efficacy and targeting of current relocation incentives and personal and business tax incentives could be reviewed,” Abbott said in a statement before the election. Kevin Rudd subsequently proposed cutting company tax in the Northern Territory but faced criticism over the lack of detail accompanying the campaign pledge.

Also added to the committee’s terms of reference is a specific requirement for advice on a white paper to detail government action needed to make the proposals a reality, including funding sources and a timeline for implementation.

Most elements of the terms of reference put to the lower house on 21 November will remain the same. The committee will consider policies for developing parts of Australia that lie north of the Tropic of Capricorn spanning Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.

It will look at opportunities in the mineral, energy, agricultural, tourism, defence and other industries, trade and investment links with the Asia-Pacific, critical economic and social infrastructure, “impediments to growth” and ways to encourage private investment and innovation.

The committee is expected to report about the middle of next year.