Will those damn alcopops never go away? We thought they’d been killed off by Steve “conqueror of the alcohol industry” Fielding and the Coalition but they’ll soon be back to haunt the political debate. The nation’s 15-year-olds have much to answer for.

The media haven’t been able to help themselves. Another defeat would provide a double dissolution trigger, they chorused, despite Wayne Swan explicitly ruling out an alcopops election. Fielding, in a rare moment of lucidity, rightly suggested the prospect of an election based on grog tax was pretty silly.

Not that the Government would mind such talk one bit. For some Coalition strategists (and that word is used very loosely these days), the very fact that Swan ruled out an election is evidence that it could be a possibility.

This has nothing to do with election triggers and everything to do with the ancient political art of messing with your opponents’ heads. In this version, you pick a fight you don’t mind losing — or in this case one you’ve actually already lost — purely for the sake of making the Opposition’s life more difficult. Bob Carr used to do it effortlessly, as did John Howard, although he was attacked for playing “wedge politics” when he did it.

At least one journalist suggested that the Government had focus group research showing that Malcolm Turnbull is being viewed as totally negative by the community. If the ALP needed a focus group to tell them that they need to get out more. It’s obvious that Turnbull has become Dr No, primarily because, um, well, he keeps saying “no”. Why not serve up something to which he has already said the magic word, purely for the pleasure of hearing him say it again?

The several hundred million dollars in excise revenue probably doesn’t hurt either; let’s not forget the measure began life as a tax grab dressed up as a moral panic about binge drinking.

All this is evidence that the Government is pretty certain it has locked onto Turnbull and can pour fire on him at will. Turnbull has, of course, helped by drawing an enormous target on his forehead. He is trapped in the Government’s agenda, reacting to issues the Government raises, having to shape his public persona based its preferred issues. His response to the Budget will now be couched in terms of whether he will oppose it and, for the more melodramatic, even whether he’ll “block supply”. Then there’ll be the Australian Business Investment Partnership bill to say no to, then alcopops, and thereafter the emissions trading scheme. And that’s long before we get to the NBN company.

No. Nup. No way, José. Forget about it. Nothin’ doin’. Anyone detect a pattern?

This is what gets through to voters. The nuance of Turnbull’s opposition — whether he opposes outright, or wants to propose amendments to improve something, or is reserving his position until he sees the legislation — is lost.

The majority of voters give about five seconds’ thought to politics a day, when they see an item on the nightly news bulletin or hear a grab from a radio news bulletin. It’s just long enough for them to see Turnbull say “no”. The reasons are lost on them. They don’t read newspapers and consider the detail of debates.

The Government understands this and shapes its communication strategy accordingly — that’s why Rudd and his senior ministers talk the political equivalent of baby talk half the time.

The Opposition either doesn’t understand it or is helpless to do anything about it. At the moment, the Government is in the highly enjoyable position of having the Opposition do its work for it. Things are getting so bad for the Opposition, if Turnbull actually produced a decent, positive policy announcement, it would be spun as an attempt to escape from his growing negative persona.

And notice in the news vacuum of Easter, some press talk naturally gravitated back to Peter Costello? Anyone who thinks Peter Costello would be more effective at countering this than Malcolm Turnbull is nuts. Costello would be even more aggressively negative than Turnbull.

There are a lot of “first rules of politics”. Among them is that when you’re in a hole, stop digging. Turnbull needs to start saying “yes” a lot.

Peter Fray

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