Even if the Government remains way ahead in the polls – regardless of what The Australian might say – in Parliament, it’s much closer.

Brendan Nelson, especially when he keeps Emo Man on a tight leash, performs better in Parliament than he does in the real world. And now his whole team is working better. Hitherto, only Andrew Robb and Greg Hunt had really been taking it up to the Government, but now former Ministers are starting to perform as well, as if they’ve realised the bureaucrats and teams of advisers they relied on in government aren’t coming back any time soon.

There’s not a lot of substance there, admittedly, but that’s not the point. Oppositions need to manufacture issues, perform stunts, live off scraps, annoy and niggle. It’s not pretty but it’s their job and yesterday and Monday provided a demonstration that they’re working that out.

The petrol debate is now flagging – thank dog – and instead the Opposition is trying to catch ministers out with what might, uncharitably, be termed trick questions. They’re sharing the questions around, as well, with even backbenchers getting up to have a go, which if nothing else must build a greater sense of cohesiveness in Coalition ranks.

On Monday, they asked Robert McClelland about how unincorporated petrol station owners would be caught by Fuelwatch. It’s a fairly simple question that crops up in a lot of Commonwealth regulation – the corporations power in the constitution doesn’t work if you’re not a corporation, obviously, requiring the Commonwealth to use other powers to capture small entities. McClelland, fresh from his mighty victory over ACT same-sex couples, actually said the following:

The extent to which that matter is being considered by the government is a question that we will address through the implementation of the policy.

It is still unclear how McClelland managed to return to his seat with both feet in his mouth.

There was more of the same yesterday, but to greater effect. Things began poorly for the Coalition when they targeted Ageing Minister Justine Elliott over Fuelwatch’s benefits for the elderly. One assumes they thought the elegant former policewoman would be a weak link but she deflected the question with ease and efficiently returned fire. She scored a direct hit on Christopher Pyne, then returned to her seat, safe, and perhaps slightly regretful, in the knowledge that that will probably be the last time the Opposition has a crack at her.

There was more luck, however, when they locked onto the issue of child care costs. The Government’s tendency to tell people it shares their pain over rising prices will be a gift that keeps on giving for the Coalition, because there are plenty of items in the household budgets of working families that are going up. Tony Abbott asked Julia Gillard to explain exactly what she would do if private child care operators raised their charges – which, with mathematical inevitability, they will when the government’s much-vaunted childcare rebate increases in July.

Of course, there’s bugger all the Government can do without moving in to regulate the entire sector, although there’s always the (expensive) possibility of funding more non-profit and community childcare to place more competition on the likes of ABC. But Gillard refused to say that. “We’ll be watching them,” she declared repeatedly, and “canvassing all options”. When pressed on what the options were, four times, she wouldn’t say, and nor would Rudd when he fielded the question as well. Gillard handled her predicament skilfully, repeatedly turning the attack back on the Opposition, but you can tell when ministers are under pressure – the waffle words and pauses expand to fill the cracks left from not having, or being unwilling to offer, an answer.

However, the dominance of child care did enable the Prime Minister to move onto what may become one of Labor’s core themes in its counter-attack on the Coalition over the prices issue. Rudd told his party room yesterday of the need to emphasise that the Coalition was standing up for big business against consumers – for oil companies, alcohol companies, private health insurance and now, by implication, child care companies. For those who maintain the Rudd=Blair/he’s-in-the-wrong-party line, the Prime Minister might prove to be rather more firmly within the Labor tradition than previously suspected.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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