The devil makes work for idle hands, and with Parliament not sitting and some fascinating polls around, election speculation is impossible to avoid.

Liberals are convinced they’re on a winner with their warning that the price of power and petrol will have to rise under a carbon-emissions trading scheme. The Government has committed to implementing such a scheme, but is refusing to set emission-reduction targets. Labor is targeting a 60% reduction by 2050.

The Government believes that it can paint this as a burden Labor will dump on households and the economy as a whole, regardless of the impact. In contrast, it believes  that it can convince voters that it has the economic skills to keep cost increases to manageable levels.

Peter Costello was out yesterday warning that there is no such thing as a “cost-free” reduction in carbon emissions. “That involves a price response,” he said. “People have got to understand this.

“If we move to a trading system which is designed to make coal-fired power stations less attractive, the electricity that comes from coal-fired power stations will become more expensive. If we want to encourage people to use less petrol in their car, one of the consequences of that is that petrol will become less affordable.”

It all feeds beautifully into the usual economic management lines.

There’s talk that Peter Garrett has already lost Labor the next election. You can imagine that he mightn’t play that well outside the latte curtain – and that the soy decaf set see him as a sell-out, too.

You can imagine Labor picking up seats, but falling short of the goal, Howard doing an extend farewell tour as a slightly rusty man of steel and appointing Therese Rein Fair Pay Commissioner before handing over to Cossie and taking up a position as a weekend volunteer guide at the Bradman Museum in Bowral.

And then there’s the other option. Labor people say the economy is chugging along tickety-boo and the issues they’re stronger on – the environment, education, industrial relations – will decide the next election.

They say that the Government’s lines on climate change are not only clutching at straws, but entirely unconvincing. The classically educated amongst them quote Butler’s Hudibras:

He that complies against his will
Is of his own opinion still.

Rather than being a cause for concern, there was a fair bit of relief amongst senior Labor figures at Monday’s Galaxy poll.

Rightly, they regard the figures as a much more accurate reflection of the public mood. The hard heads feel the election itself will be even closer, with nervous undecided voters sticking in the end with the devil they know.

They hope that they will win, of course, but the problem with the huge lead some polls has given them is that they have turned Howard into the underdog and given him the sympathy vote – while potential for a protest vote against him evaporated.

Tighter polls, they say, will be much, much better for the ALP.

The Canberra Press Gallery, who always want a change of government as it’s an easy story to cover, will stop automatically writing off Howard and treating Rudd as PM-in-waiting.

Tighter polls put the focus back on the Government’s actions and demeanour.
They remind voters that Howard might just win again – which means they’ll be stuck with ‘The Smirk’ within 18 months.

That, they hope, will deliver them government.