The observation of one of the country’s most experienced industry representatives to Crikey said it all. “Was Brendan worse than this rabble?”

The Coalition party room spontaneously applauded yesterday when they’d decided to oppose the package. Coalition MPs have been looking for an opportunity to take on the Government. Some wanted it on IR. But now they’ve settled for the stimulus package instead.

“It’s what we believe in,” said one senator.

Much better to have a fight on something you believe in, yes.

On both policy grounds and on the basis that the Senate has a review role, they’re quite right — or at least would have been right if they’d waited to say no until after they’d scrutinised it in the Senate. On political grounds, they’re dead wrong. In fact, delusional. Any euphoria they may have felt yesterday is that of a drowning man.

The extent of their delusion was neatly illustrated by Dennis Jensen, the West Australian MP. Most of us, even amongst Coalition MPs, would agree these are serious, in fact deeply troubling times. But not Jensen, who yesterday issued a press release comparing Kevin Rudd to “an excited brothel client”. “Brothel-creeping Rudd blasted over crisis plan,” Jensen smirked.

Jensen fancies himself as a comedian. He puts out press releases every once in a while that are, to give him his due, occasionally mildly amusing. But calling the Prime Minister a brothel creeper is neither funny nor relevant to one of the most serious moments in Australia’s economic history.

Liberal cheerleaders in The Australian today described Coalition MPs as “galvanised and united”. They may have been in the joint party room. By the time they made it into Question Time, they looked like a rabble. Perhaps it was the retail sales figures, which blew Turnbull’s rationale for opposing the package clean out of the water. But the Coalition’s performance was inept, and Government ministers — even Wayne Swan — toyed with them. Andrew Laming was thrown out after 20 minutes of sustained, but wholly inarticulate, shouting at the Prime Minister. The questions were all over the place, and ineffectual.

Tony Smith foolishly asked Swan to “name a country where a stimulus package providing one-off payments to families and individuals has successfully created jobs?” “Try Australia,” laughed Lindsay Tanner. Swan then rose and quoted the Business Council of Australia’s budget submission at him. Peter Dutton asked about Dubbo Hospital and got an explanation of how the Coalition has cut health funding. Andrew Robb asked about infrastructure and got told all about the Senate debacle at the end of last year.

The Government was enjoying itself so much the Prime Minister let things run and run until 4pm, eventually racking up 28 questions.

One thing the Coalition may not have considered when it made its ill-advised decision yesterday is who exactly is going to get the tax bonuses. Yes, there are the usual recipients — Family Tax Benefit A and B beneficiaries. But taxpayers on low and middle incomes will also get them. Young singles, who’ve never got a handout before, because they don’t fit the politically-appealing profile — pensioners, or working families, or mothers. After watching everyone else benefit from government largesse over the last five years, finally it’s their turn … except, now Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t want them to get it.

They’re unlikely to be happy with Turnbull. Funny if downward envy was turned on the Coalition, who have always been masters of exploiting it.

The Government has also been clever in framing the criteria for receiving a handout. You need to have filed a tax return for 2007-08 to get it … but even if you haven’t filed yet, you can still get it if you file before the middle of the year. The ATO might want to put on some extra staff to handle a flood of late returns.

Attention will now turn to the minor parties. This morning the Senate agreed to hold a brief inquiry, to report by Tuesday, on the package. Treasury officials are being roused up now to attend hearings of the Economics committee tonight. Given the short notice, it’s unclear who other than bureaucrats will be able to appear. But the Senate will sit next week, with the aim of considering the bills by Thursday.

Steve Fielding is claiming to have crafted that arrangement together, but in fact it was the Greens, who’ve been working assiduously since this time yesterday on the bills and scrutiny arrangements. They’re the ones who spotted the “non-typo” in the defence housing package. Brown and co have been impressive in their handling of this.

And there’s one interested backbencher watching all this. By opposing the package, Malcolm Turnbull has dramatically increased the chances he will flame out in the polls this year. The Coalition never stays “galvanised and united” for more than five minutes at a time. Once the polls turn — or turn further — the muttering will start.

There’s only one alternative leader in the party, and that’s Peter Costello, he of the “God-given commandments”. With Turnbull succumbing to death by Newspoll, Costello will have the party that wouldn’t cop him before crawling over broken glass for him to lead them — and with no Turnbull to spoil things with his ambition. To the extent that Costello might have ever had a post-election plan, that might have been it, and it’s looking more and more like it will work.

Yesterday’s man or a brilliant fool. What a choice.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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