This morning I watched Joe Hockey on ABC2 Breakfast — momentarily not covering either Josef Fritzl or Barak Obama’s latest bill-signing — without the sound. For the duration of the interview Hockey either shook his head, or wore an expression familiar to anyone that recalls the child who, miffed at a playground game gone against him, declares “nah, not taking it”.

It was entirely appropriate. The main message delivered by the Opposition to the electorate this week — on alcopops, on IR, on the Australian Business Investment Partnership — has been one of relentless negativity. It’s hard to recall the last time Malcolm Turnbull had something positive to offer on any economic issue. There may be political advantages to such tactics, but the message getting through to voters that the Coalition is all about saying no. It began with the second stimulus package and hasn’t let up since.

The Government has picked up on it. Wayne Swan has been repeating in Parliament the charge that the Opposition would rather see the economy fail than the Government succeed. And business has picked up on it too, complaining that the Opposition has sidelined itself while the Government works with business to address the economic downturn. At some point the Coalition will realise that its natural constituency is being lured away from it, but evidently not yet.

Belatedly last night the Coalition tried to shift ground slightly as the Senate worked its way laboriously through the IR bill, one of the few areas where they still have business solidly behind them. They opted to support a threshold of 20 employees in the definition of small business, bring them into line with Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon. There was a less aggressive tone to the debate generally, although that may have been exhaustion as Eric Abetz, Joe Ludwig, the Greens, Xenophon and Fielding all put on an impressive effort to go through the fine detail of IR until 2.30am.

There was also a revealing moment in the debate near midnight over an amendment relating to union protection of out-workers in the textile industry. Steve Fielding, having voted with the Coalition to defeat a Government amendment, decided to reverse himself after listening to a contribution by Labor Senator Gavin Marshall on the issue. As I’ve noted before, Fielding is easily — and often rightly — mocked, but he takes the job seriously, and actually listens to debates, which stands in fairly stark contrast to most major-party Senators.

The chances of the Government accepting the 20 figure, at least today, are remote. The Senate was continuing to sit this morning, finishing business left over from yesterday, while the Government kept the House of Representatives in limbo, rewriting the IR bill for reintroduction sometime today, at which point it will be bounced back to the Senate. Fielding is said to have offered a figure of 15 full-time staff — not full-time-equivalent staff — but whether Nick Xenophon will accept that isn’t clear. Yesterday both the Prime Minister and Julia Gillard ramped up their rhetoric on the issue, emphasising the Labor mandate. It’s hard to believe this is double dissolution stuff, but the longer it goes on the longer it enables the Government to keep the focus on the Coalition’s negative stance.

Rudd was emphasising the mandate issue and how he had “got the balance right” on radio this morning. As an example of what little regard Rudd now has for the actual interview process, his interview with the ABC’s Chris Uhlman this morning was a keeper. He relentlessly pounded his key points about the Government being responsible and the Coalition irresponsible and ignored Uhlman’s repeated attempts to get an answer to the simple question of whether the IR bill would increase labour costs.

People don’t interview Rudd anymore, just introduce him.

All the more reason why the Opposition needs to get out of its negative mode and find more effective ways of holding this Government to account.

Peter Fray

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