There’s a definite look of panic to the Government’s pre-election deck-clearing, with anything faintly inconvenient being chucked overboard in extreme haste.

It probably isn’t so much panic — all the polling suggests the Government remains on track to increase its majority at the coming election — as a combination of ruthlessness and opportunism driven by the political calendar. The Government has been preoccupied with health, but that has now moved from an extra-parliamentary stoush with the Premiers to a parliamentary stoush with the Opposition.

Next week, the week before the Budget, will be dominated by the Henry Review, with the Government’s response likely to be carefully stripped of anything that could be manipulated into a scare campaign by the Opposition. The Budget is delivered the following week, aimed at strengthening the Government’s economic credentials in the lead-up to the election.

After that, we’re virtually into the election campaign (without any agreed debates, thanks to the Government’s petulance and hypocrisy). The speculation about dates will resume with vigour and political coverage will all be channeled through the prism of the imminent poll. The Government will try to ensure that the limited Parliamentary sittings between the Budget and the election are dominated by health and Senate obstructionism.

So this brief period of political dead air, with no Parliament to provide a forum for the Opposition, was the ideal time to kill off everything that doesn’t fit the Government’s health reform and economic management narrative. The fact that all of the recent backflips except the asylum seeker suspension have been spending initiatives suggests the Government is hell-bent on delivering a significantly smaller deficit — there’ll be no repeat of the Prime Minister and Treasurer’s reluctance to mention the number this year.

Incidentally, many in the media has bought into Tony Abbott’s “great big new tax” line when talking about how the shelving of the CPRS will keep electricity prices down. Indeed, that claim has been made side-by-side with statements about how much the delay will save the Budget.  But the CPRS was going to inject $400m into the economy in 2010-11, and $2.5b over Forward Estimates. It included just under $20b worth of handouts to households, overcompensating them for the relatively minor impacts of the CPRS on electricity and petrol prices. No CPRS means no handouts — not just to polluters, but to households as well.

The Rudd team will be figuring its rather clunky clearing of the decks will get a couple of days of bad press from the commentariat — mission accomplished there — but won’t register strongly with voters out in the real world. Where it might come back to bite them, especially on the CPRS decision, is via Caucus, where plenty of backbenchers are unhappy, especially given the lack of consultation.

The next Caucus meeting, to be held when Parliament returns the week after next, might be a lot more interesting than most held under this Government — although by then proceedings will be overshadowed by taxation and the Budget.

They’ll also figure, as with the asylum seeker decision, that any left-leaning votes that would be lost as a result of the CPRS decision will be unlikely to end up with the Liberals. Indeed, if you really want genuine action on climate change, chances are you haven’t been thinking of voting Labor since early 2009.

The only complication is that that may not apply in the seats of Denison, Melbourne and Sydney where Green candidates may outpoll Liberal candidates and threaten Labor. If the Greens manage to walk the walk on Polling Day — a feat that has hitherto been beyond them — the botching of the CPRS will have been a key factor.

Peter Fray

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