Saturday, December 1, 2012

'Whatever the truth of the AWU affair, the simple fact is that both main party leaders are damaged goods'

AT the beginning of this week the elephant in the room was whether the PM was planning to address the Australian Workers Union saga head-on, with a detailed press conference or parliamentary performance.  
By week's end, the final parliamentary sitting period of this year no less, the elephant became the question of whether the opposition had used up precious time that might have been better spent holding Labor to account for the many problems it has had during its time in power.
Political capital is finite, and the attention span of the electorate is not great, especially at this time of year and nearly 12 months out from the next election. An opposition needs to think carefully about what it wants to devote its time to attacking. There is an opportunity cost (so the jargon goes) when making such decisions. Having told us for years that the carbon tax, the mining tax and growing government debt were disastrous for the community, these triple issues weren't even deemed significant enough to consume one opposition question during the final sitting period. Instead it focused attention on decades-old allegations.
If the opposition doubts the need to focus on such contemporary problems for the government, so may voters. If that happens, next year when the parliamentary teams reload for another round of barbs after the summer break, Coalition attacks may start to sound like white noise.
One of the Liberal Party's key strategists did not agree with the decision to focus on the AWU affair. He wanted the opposition to maintain the pressure on the asylum-seekers issue, believing this (not the AWU affair) resonated in key marginal seats, especially western Sydney. That such senior individuals are expressing such concerns, even only on background, speaks to an opposition showing signs of disunity in its decision-making.
In a week where the government introduced legislation into the parliament to enact a National Disability Insurance Scheme and parts of the recommendations from the Gonski review in respect to education, virtually every question from the opposition in question time was devoted to the AWU saga.
And those questions weren't even put by the Opposition Leader, allowing Labor to label Tony Abbott "gutless".
If Coalition strategists were concerned that attacks on carbon pricing and so on were ageing, and they needed a new way of challenging the government, these twin legislative announcements on disability and education were easily condemned.
For a start, neither carried long-term funding mechanisms. In the case of NDIS it was simply the legislation to allow the trial, with no funding rules in relation to a wider rollout.
Given the reported blowout in cost expectations, and the warring with the states over funding responsibilities, any opposition worth its salt should have spent time unpicking this joke. All the more so when you consider that for the NDIS to become operational over the forward estimates, the budget surplus projections would be blown away. Yet we are constantly told by the government that the surplus is not negotiable.
The legislation in respect to Gonski was even more ridiculous. At least the government can argue that NDIS legislation was necessary to get the trial started (you have to start somewhere). What purpose do aspirational goals in education being enshrined in legislation have? I can't think of so much as one time in Australia's federated history (of more than a century) where such vacuous legislation has been inserted into the statute books. To add to this theatre of the absurd, clause 10 of the bill states that nothing in it is legally enforceable.
Yet this week the opposition did not devote one question to either of these legislative issues, although opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne certainly hit the media hustings to condemn the government.
In a week where Julia Gillard was embarrassingly rolled by her own caucus over her preferred response to a UN vote on the status of Palestine, which ultimately saw her shift positions without warning the Victorian Right, which has had her back in leadership talk and wanted her to stand firm with Israel, Abbott asked just one question on this messy situation before allowing Julie Bishop to return to the AWU saga.
Senior Labor sources tell me that Bob Carr intimated to the PM that his position was untenable unless she reconsidered, which she ultimately did. A foreign minister threatening to resign ahead of the first UN vote since our elevation to the Security Council off the back of millions spent winning the bid; a PM determining foreign policy off the back of internal party dynamics and pressure rather than the national interest - it drew just one question from the opposition.
I do not doubt that the PM has lost a fair amount of political skin this week courtesy of the opposition's focus on the AWU affair. That, presumably, was the Coalition's intent in approaching the week as it has. Although Abbott's over-reach by accusing Gillard of breaking the law (without hard evidence that she has done just that) is about the worst sin an opposition leader can make.
It will be interesting to see if Abbott's serious misstep registers with voters, or if (as I suspect is likelier) attitudes towards the PM are so entrenched that the opposition gets away with its mistakes.
Part of the Coalition's thinking in devoting the parliamentary week to the AWU saga was that doing so forced the PM to immerse herself in the matter, at the expense of time spent appearing prime ministerial. It was a direct attempt to counter the government's efforts to appear as if it is getting on with governing when the Coalition is being aggressively negative. The PM was forced to fire back, lowering herself to Bishop's level (and Abbott's, too, once he joined the fray).
If the opposition is right and the government needs a sustained period of appearing to be governing uncontroversially and without incident - thereby giving voters a "stick with the devil you know" sentiment ahead of polling day - the Coalition at least prevented that.
But at what cost to its own brand, and that of its leader and deputy leader?
Whatever the truth of the claims and counter-claims concerning the AWU affair, the simple fact is that both main party leaders are damaged goods and would be highly vulnerable to a new leader unburdened by the baggage of the past week (if not months) were either side prepared to make a change for their own electoral advantage.
Kevin Rudd or Malcolm Turnbull would seal an election victory for their side of politics were they to take on Abbott or Gillard, respectively, at the ballot box. But change of this sort is entirely off the agenda for the Coalition and that is also likely to be the case for the Labor Party.
Popularity in the electorate means little for a potential leader (short of desperate times calling for desperate measures) if unpopularity in the partyroom is as pervasive as it is for Rudd and Turnbull.
Peter van Onselen is a professor at the University of Western Australia.

So many targets, yet federal opposition shoots wide | The Australian:

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