The government’s proclivity for spin and half-smart political strategy is re-emerging.

The Australian Electoral Commission yesterday confirmed what is blindingly obvious despite the government’s efforts to disguise it: sticking up signs in front of schools announcing that the government paid for new buildings is advertising. Possibly they brought Blind Freddie in to provide that opinion.

The commission thereby handed Christopher Pyne a nice little victory over Julia Gillard, although in truth Pyne can thank the government’s stupidity and proclivity for spin.

Sticking up school signs boasting of being responsible for new classrooms and libraries and playground facilities is exactly the sort of half-smart caper this government was indulging in before the economic crisis gave it some real work to do. Like the war on binge drinking, or the “tough decisions” that weren’t, or pretence of bipartisanship, it’s the sort of idea that goes down well in Cabinet and strategy sessions, but doesn’t fly in the real world. And yes, the Coalition did it when they were in government, but that hardly justifies it.

It’s also based on faulty logic. Parents know perfectly well why there are new facilities being built in schools across the country. And they won’t forget by the next election. Sticking up a sign won’t produce a single extra vote. The signs will just sit there. The government should pray no signs fall down and injure a pupil. Then there’ll be hell to pay.

The same sort of half-smart thinking was behind the quite deliberate strategy on Gillard’s part of repeatedly guaranteeing that no one would be worse off as a consequence of the award modernisation process.

Like the schools component of the stimulus package, the award modernisation process is good policy that doesn’t need Labor spin. Reducing several thousand different awards into a not much more than a 100 was, barring some sort of changes in the laws of mathematics, going to lead to some workers getting less or more pay or better or worse conditions.

Instead of acknowledging that and committing to get the best balance possible, Gillard tried to keep the issue off the radar by pre-emptively declaring no one — employer or worker — would be worse off.

Ever since then, bit by bit, the issue has taken on a life of its own as the mathematical realities of consolidating awards have become apparent. And once the government caved in to the hospitality industry’s demands that it be protected from wage rises, employer groups and unions started coming in for their chop on the issue. Rent seekers and special interest pleaders need little encouragement to hop on a plane to Canberra.

This issue is one to watch, not so much for the predictable whingeing from unions and employers groups, as for whether the government sticks to its commitment to achieve a reform that was beyond even the Howard government’s true IR believers. The Rudd government was right to take it on, but as always with this mob, they can’t settle for pursuing good policy and selling the political case for it — there’s got to be some spin and half-smart “messaging” to go along with it.

If they just stuck to what they claim so often to do — just getting on with the business of governing — they might find voters are smart enough to give them credit where it’s due.

Listen to yesterday’s Canberra Calling, “Money, Della Bosca and stimulus