The Prime Minister could have curtailed all criticism of his overseas trip if only he’d told us he was meeting Henry Kissinger. Dr Strangelove, still with that basso profundo voice that made South American democracies quake in terror in the sixties and seventies, doubtless filled Rudd in on how Metternich would’ve handled the Chinese and why SALT II was the ideal template for “prevending de development of a 21st cendury nuclear balance of derror, Misdah Prime Minisder.” It doesn’t hurt that Kissinger hasn’t said anything new since the Ford Administration. He’s still, you know, ladies and gentleman, Dr Henry Kissinger!

In his absence — Rudd’s, that is — Question Time was a lot more fun. And things went very smoothly in Parliament for Labor. The Government got its luxury car tax and condensate excise bills through, and even if the Medicare surcharge bill went down, it won’t affect the surplus too much, but it provides a useful stick with which to beat the Coalition and the Senator for 1.77% of Victorians. The Government can consider the last fortnight most productive on the Budget front.

There was some press comment that Labor was “rattled” by the elevation of Turnbull. But Rudd doesn’t do rattled, at least in public. All that had happened was that the Government sat up and started paying attention again, something not required while Brendan Nelson made a spectacle of himself. But by the end of this session, it felt like the Government had relaxed again, having established that Turnbull and his reshuffled team weren’t offering much more of a threat than before last Tuesday.

For that, they can thank Julie Bishop, whose less than auspicious start to the shadow Treasuryship seemed to confirm doubts about her. Trying to defend lifting a couple of sentences from the WSJ by claiming Wayne Swan “plagiarised” a Second Reading Speech for a bill will probably be the lamest counter-attack we’ll see this term (loved Joe Hockey’s bellow while she was asking her question though). Bishop should’ve just “fessed up” and said she should’ve quoted the source. Politicians and staff are allowed to make minor mistakes, provided they own up to them straight away. The Prime Minister might bear that in mind as well.

Turnbull might also think about his parliamentary tactics. Twice this week he moved censure motions during Question Time. Both times they looked like the Opposition had run out of puff. Yesterday, as Question Time dragged on until 4 o’clock (partly because Barry Haase, who evidently wanted an early flight home, insisted on getting himself ejected for 24 hours), Anthony Albanese was moved to remark, after two divisions, “if you are going to move to a censure, you actually have to build some momentum. What you cannot do is ask nine questions on nine different subjects and then move a motion that does not relate to any of the nine subjects you have raised.” He was — surprise surprise — exaggerating, but he had a point.

Turnbull also seems to think he can demonstrate his economic competence by talking about liquidity in local credit markets, as though that is even faintly comprehensible to most punters. Kevin Rudd’s success last year was to ground economics in domestic concerns that voters understood perfectly, while Howard and Costello spoke about labour markets, investment and debt levels. Credit liquidity is sufficiently arcane that even if Wayne Swan made some glaring gaffe in an answer, it wouldn’t make the nightly news.

Which brings us back to Peter Costello. Costello and Julia Gillard – thoroughly enjoying herself in the big chair — rounded off Question Time with some badinage over the lack of mentions of WorkChoices in his book. Costello enjoyed it; he seems more positively disposed toward Labor than his own side at the moment. He gave Turnbull quite a touch-up on Lateline on Tuesday on the liquidity issue — agreeing with the Prime Minister against Turnbull — and repeated his criticism of Turnbull’s tax efforts as a backbencher. He also said that he would be continuing to “make a contribution.”

Costello may now be yesterday’s man but he has enormous capacity to inflict damage on Turnbull, whom he clearly can’t stand. You get the sense that Costello adopted an amiable paternalism toward Brendan Nelson even as he trashed his party’s economic credentials. But Turnbull, with his business success, and his high public profile, and his brilliance — and most of all with the leadership he never had — pushes Costello’s buttons. Costello was happy enough to see his party and Brendan Nelson damaged by his insouciance about the leadership. What are the chances of him restraining himself about someone he actively dislikes?

Costello will make a contribution, all right. He’ll contribute to undermining Turnbull.

Peter Fray

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