Parliament resumes today with the Government, for the first time, under something akin to pressure – or what passes for pressure in Federal politics these days.

Rudd’s statement that the Government had done all it physically could about rising prices is being touted as a sort of gotcha moment akin to “the recession we had to have” and “working families have never been better off”. Hardly. Such statements only really hurt when they crystallise existing negative sentiment, and even then they’re no barrier to electoral success, as Paul Keating demonstrated.

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister is now in the same trap his predecessor found himself, caught between his own electorally-driven rhetoric and economic realities. Howard’s ineffective response was to shrill ever more loudly the same rhetoric, and hope his cheerleaders at News Ltd could convince people it was true. How Rudd handles the same problem will make for an interesting, though mostly academic, exercise.

Accordingly, expect Question Time to be dominated by inflation, and Opposition demands as to whether the Government “really understands” the impact of petrol and grocery prices. Finally the PM’s political brains trust have a chance to demonstrate their skill under fire.

It’s only the House of Reps sitting this week and next, because Senators are devoting themselves to Budget Estimates. New Government Ministers had a sleigh ride at Estimates back in February, with Opposition senators, new to their portfolios and lacking staff, stuck having to ask about the Howard Government’s programs. Now they can get stuck into the Government’s Budget and, with any luck, throw up some headlines about Budget victims, particularly in Kim Carr’s Innovation and Industry portfolio, where a range of business programs were slashed, and Education, Employment and Training, which also lost a number of skills and training programs. How dearly the Opposition would love to finally embarrass the hitherto rampant Julia Gillard.

This will be a test of the Opposition’s staff, as well – their capacity to spot what the Government is trying to hide behind the numbers in Portfolio Budget Statements. They and their bosses will also need to work out the true meaning behind the bland statements offered by bureaucrats, who will as always have spent considerable time preparing briefing for themselves and their Ministers that is fully intended to say as little as humanly possible.

Estimates is also the one arena in which the Prime Minister’s control freakery can’t work. Ministers – or their Senate representatives – and bureaucrats have to perform, by themselves, without being able to check with the Prime Minister’s Office on how they should respond to tricky questions. Some will enjoy the freedom. In February, Stephen Conroy, who plainly loves a stoush of any kind, appeared to have great fun wherever he appeared. Others will stumble, or have to sit there and watch as their public servants or agency heads stuff up.

Parliament has so far only sat for a total of five weeks this year. Now there’s two full weeks of proper scrutiny, a break of a week, then another two weeks of Parliament. The transition to the Labor era is over. Now we’re into the grind of government.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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