So finally we have a contest, at least in Parliament. It was in Parliament where Brendan Nelson had some limited success earlier in the year on the carers’ and seniors’ bonus, even as he flailed about in single digits in the polls.

Now, with the political establishment addled by petrol fumes, or more correctly the testosterone of angry motorists, the Opposition has another populist cause with which to flail the government. And for much of question time, yesterday, they looked like a proper Opposition, deriding Rudd and his Ministers sufficiently to rattle even Rudd himself, who is normally imperturbable in the Chamber. Unusually, he turned and directed some of his answers to his own side, a sure sign he was put off by the volume of interjections, some of which he also responded to.

And Wayne Swan didn’t have the best of days, declaring that “the Australian people are happy” during his Dorothy Dixer, leaving an inconvenient pause before continuing “with our long-term plans for the nation against the short-term, irresponsible proposals of those opposite.” That’ll make a nice soundbite, Treasurer.

So, clearly, the Government’s political brains trust didn’t come up with any “silver bullet” — another of Kevin Rudd’s many pet phrases — on this issue, beyond emphasising the Coalition’s fiscal irresponsibility and playing up their divisions.

“The member for Mayo may want to replace the member for Wentworth as shadow Treasurer,” Rudd declared, prompting Peter Costello to look up from the book he spent Question Time engrossed in and gesture animatedly to the Press Gallery.

His arm-waving suggested either that Alexander Downer would make a much better Treasurer than Wayne Swan, or that QF 499 should taxi to the Government chamber entrance.

In fact, Downer attracted considerable attention during yesterday’s proceedings. Nicola Roxon pointed out that he had recently written to the Sydney Morning Herald and responded to someone who complained about drunks in Adelaide that “if he wants a city without drunks, perhaps he should move to Riyadh.” Given Downer’s famous enthusiasm for musical theatre, this summoned images of Downer channelling Peter Allen and shaking the maracas to “I Go To Riyadh.”

Which brings us to Downer’s career path. Senior Liberal MPs think he is still likely to leave, but there’s a genuine sense, and not just apparently on Christopher Pyne’s part, that he would be valuable if he remained and joined the front bench. There’s limited experience in the Opposition shadow ministry, a lack of MPs who have been in the firing line in Parliament, who have worked through Cabinet processes, who would bring a sense of weight to the Coalition side.

For all that Downer is the object of ridicule to many of us, and he would bring all of that to the Opposition frontbench. As for whether a vacancy can be found for him, well, vacancies will open up due to one thing or another. Not straight away, but in due course.

But the main thing Liberals want is for Downer to make up his mind and bring an end to this transitional rubbish. Costello too, although it’s said he’s just waiting to make sure Higgins will be unwinnable for Labor before going. In the meantime, however, they chew up valuable media space the Opposition could be using for more productive purposes, and deprive the Liberals of the one really valuable thing Kim Beazley had after 1996 — party unity.

Without that, they have absolutely no chance at the next election.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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