Parliament’s back for the final two weeks of the year, with just two minor matters to deal with – getting IR through the Senate and dealing with terror bills. And then there’s the massive speculation over the Liberal leadership and the format of the frontbench.

“By the time Parliament rises in two weeks for the summer adjournment, a swathe of massive, contentious reforms will be in place,” Matt Price wrote in his News Limited Sunday column yesterday. “As he settles in for the traditional January holiday watching the cricket, John Howard can tick off the Telstra sale, workplace reform, anti-terror laws, work-to-welfare changes and clearance for a nuclear waste dump in the Northern Territory…

“By any measure, it’s been a remarkable and frenetic period of governance. With brutal force and arrogance most legislation has been rammed through Parliament with scant opportunity for meaningful review or discussion. Howard has the numbers and he’s not been afraid to use them.

“The cost of this frenzied reform has been a marked drop in support for the Coalition. Most of the unease, you suspect, stems from the workplace changes which kick in next year. Two prominent newspaper polls have the Opposition well ahead of the Government with, importantly, Labor’s primary vote spiking above 42 per cent. That’s election-winning territory.”

The Age‘s Shaun Carney commented on Saturday about how IR seems to have worked wonders for Kim Beazley’s leadership – and the legislation isn’t even through yet.

Most interesting of all, however, is the reshuffle and leadership speculation.

No matter what happens over the next fortnight, reshuffle rumours won’t go away. Too many members of the outer ministryare duds.

If there are problems with the terror laws or IR, the leadership talk will be cranked up even higher. There are no two better topics to provide sources of summer speculation for journos short of stories.

What will Peter Costello do? Michelle Grattan took a long, objective look at his options yesterday.

“Try this for a tactic,” she speculates. “Howard announces — or leaks — at the height of the summer daze, that he believes the party wants him to stay and he’s pleased to accommodate. He’s letting this be known in the interests of certainty, to prevent damaging speculation. What does an ambitious Treasurer do?”

Glenn Milne offered what looked like some well sourced thoughts, too:

“Despite attempts to set artificial deadlines on a leadership showdown between John Howard and Peter Costello it remains more likely than not that the Treasurer will bring down the Budget next May.

“Much has been written about the fact Costello has given Howard until April-May to vacate the Lodge or face a challenge.

“Costello regards this as a creation of the media, which nominated this timeline because it coincides with Howard’s 10th anniversary as Prime Minister – an appropriate milestone for his departure.

“But the Treasurer is also suspicious that Howard’s media supporters are now being used by the PM’s camp to try to pin him to a timetable which is not of his choosing. The April-May scenario could then be used by Howard to claim that Costello had been “too pushy” over the leadership, allowing him to use the “threat” as justification for calling off any succession deal.

“Alternatively, if April-May passes without any challenge, Costello will be portrayed by the Howard forces as lacking the ticker for the leadership. The Treasurer is intent on not getting boxed up by these deadlines. Instead, he’s intent on maintaining maximum flexibility on the leadership question.”

And he had some very interesting thoughts on the reshuffle to share:

“Meanwhile, the Treasurer waits to see if Howard engages in his own pre-Christmas re-shuffle. If it happens, it will be clear signal Howard is digging in. Regardless, he’d be compelled, on grounds of talent, to promote the likes of Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne, Andrew Robb, Mitch Fifield, George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull.

“And guess what? Most of them are Costello supporters – which, for Howard raises this uncomfortable question: ‘If you want to really rejuvenate the Government, why just stop at the bottom?’”

Who could have put such ideas in Milne’s head?

Even without the battle of the bills, it’s going to be a fascinating fortnight.