Rather different takes on asylum seekers in The Oz today. Dennis Shanahan thinks the Government has out-manoeuvred the Coalition again; Christian Kerr thinks the Government is panicked, their strategy in “tatters”.

Kerr is closer to the mark. The Government is clearly rattled. Oddly, though, it hasn’t been rattled by the Coalition, which has its own problems on asylum seekers. It seems more scared by what might happen on the issue rather than what has happened. This is the downside of Kevin Rudd’s conservative political tactics. When you see everything as a potential risk to be managed, you can end up jumping at shadows.

And this particular shadow extends all the way from 2001.

If you want evidence that the Government is rattled, look at the top. The Prime Minister has been all over the place rhetorically. Normally metronome-like in his uses of key messages, Rudd tried several arguments and had to spend time explaining why he referred to “illegal immigrants”. It’s minor, but Rudd is normally perfect in his messaging.

He has insisted on trying to explain that the number of boat arrivals is comparable to the average number of arrivals during the Howard years, a line no one will buy. He has been trying to get “tough and humane” up as one of the Government’s keyword terms, without much success. Yesterday he was shrill in response to those Tuckey remarks about blowing up oil rigs, when he should have drawn attention to them and let the media do the rest.

Belatedly, last night he appeared to find his rhetorical feet on The 7.30 Report , emphasising what he calls the “spectrum” of factors at work behind the arrivals and why it was important to address all of them. It’s also the line the Government has been using the longest, emphasising its strong regional relations and Rudd’s relationship with the Indonesians.

Whether that will be enough if the boats keep coming remains to be seen.

Malcolm Turnbull has had communication problems of his own. Employing the increasingly common tactic of calling a 1.45 press conference on a sitting day – meaning he only need face a handful of questions before declaring he has to bolt to Question Time – he blundered when asked what the Coalition would do. “What I would do is not have a policy that fails,” he declared forthrightly. The sound of foreheads being smacked in the Prime Minister’s Office could be heard even in the Opposition Leader’s courtyard. Of course! A policy that actually works!

When he eventually moved a censure motion in Question Time, Turnbull spent part of it actually censuring Wilson Tuckey, before getting onto the intended target, the Prime Minister. Turnbull devoted a considerable period to the issue of “push factors”. For a long while, the Coalition has concentrated solely on the “pull factor” of the Government’s changes to the asylum seeker processing regime. Turnbull yesterday shifted the argument to arguing that there were push factors, but there were always push factors, it was how governments reacted that was the issue.

It’s not a bad argument for the Coalition to run with, but it’s too complicated to help them with voters who might be swayed by such matters. “The push factors are enormous. They have always been enormous” not merely lacks the bite of “we will determine who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come” but it sounds like an endorsement of the Government’s argument that there are overseas factors at work in boat arrivals beyond its control.

In truth both sides look uncomfortable grappling with this, like performers who know their lines but feel ill-at-ease saying them. But given the parlous state of the Coalition, anything on which they don’t cop a beating from the Government at the moment is a good thing.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey