Some of the Opposition’s biggest problems at the moment are beyond its control.

There’s not much it can do about the war-leader effect the global economic crisis has had on Kevin Rudd’s support. And it can’t change human nature, which means the Government’s stimulus package handouts are going to be well-received by voters. Nor can it do much, in the short-term, about the quality of its frontbench. Joe Hockey has made minimal impression as shadow Treasurer, although he should be given more time to find his feet before judgement. At least he’s not an active distraction like his predecessor.

But that’s all the more reason to make sure it is getting right the things that are in its control. When you’re under the hammer — and the Coalition has been strapped to an anvil for two years now — you have to go back to basics and do the simple things right.

Chief among which is making sure you’re clear on how you want to fight your opponent.

For years the ALP in Opposition made a fundamental mistake in seeing John Howard in ideological terms. They insisted on fighting the Howard of the 1980s, the hard-right warrior, the most conservative leader in the Liberal Party’s history. And, fair enough, Howard was ideological on some important issues — the two that inflicted the most political damage on him, the GST and Workchoices. But for most of his Prime Ministership, the ALP was making a fundamental mistake.

The small-government proponent became Australia’s highest taxing and spending Prime Minister. The man who railed against Asian migrants oversaw a massive increase in immigration. The ideologue who promised to gut Medicare became its self-professed “greatest friend”. The proponent of individual responsibility and “incentivation” became the patron saint of middle-class welfare.

And the ALP suffered its worst defeat when it was led by its most ideological leader, Mark Latham, against Howard at a time when the latter was at his most principle-free.

The Coalition is making the same mistake now. It is convinced Kevin Rudd is at heart an old-fashioned Labor ideologue, committed to big government, high taxes and deficits. The media can hear this at every joint partyroom briefing. Going right back to the early days of the Nelson leadership, every meeting has invariably featured one of the Coalition leadership declaring that the Government was returning to its left-wing roots or revealing its true left-wing agenda. The Coalition is convinced they are engaged in an ideological contest.

It’s a conviction the Prime Minister is only too happy to encourage, because it keeps his opponents pre-occupied with a sterile debate about issues like tax cuts versus handouts, neo-liberalism and whether the Government is too close to China. The coalition looks irrelevant and, at times, a little silly.

Their timing seems way off, as well. Much of the Government leadership is this week out of the country — the PM, the Treasurer, Stephen Smith, Penny Wong — which should have left a gap in the political debate to be filled by the Opposition, but Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey and Julie Bishop have been quiet on anything other than China. They seem to need something to react to, something to criticise.

It’s liberating when you accept that your opponent is not acting ideologically, but politically. It frees you up to do the same. In Opposition, Kevin Rudd simply vanished on issues he didn’t want to fight the Howard Government on. He staked out his ground on the issues where he saw political advantage, and ducked issues he saw no benefit in fighting, regardless of how critical they were to the ALP’s traditions or support base. He did that because he understood that for years Howard had used ideology to divide and distract Labor. By removing ideology he removed Howard’s capacity to do that. And by that stage Howard had nothing else.

The Coalition have a long way to go on this. Many MPs are convinced things won’t get better until after the political benefits of the second stimulus handouts has washed through. But that assumes voters are only driven by cash (a typical Howard-era judgement). Rudd is popular because he is perceived as aggressively responding to the economic crisis. That it involves $900 bribes to much of the population is, in a way, incidental, although certainly no negative.

The Coalition’s current position is mostly the result of MPs spoiling for a fight with the Government. The problem is, they picked an ideological fight with Rudd, not a political one, on economics and IR. Even worse, they’re two issues on which Labor has a huge advantage. Picking a fight is a fine idea, as long as you pick one in which you won’t get clobbered, and in which onlookers aren’t cheering each time your opponent belts you. The ALP did that for years with Howard until it learnt its lesson.

The Coalition should show it’s smarter than they were and learn that lesson in one term, not three.