Labor might be bereft of direction and face an identity crisis but Julia Gillard has kicked off the last parliamentary session of the year in something approaching style. Her ascension to the Prime Ministership appeared to rob us of the Rudd-era Julia Gillard — gone was the aggressive style, the cut-through communications ability, the laser-like policy focus, replaced with a vague presidential style, an increasing Ruddification of her vocabulary and policies plucked from the same dumpster in which the Coalition seems to spend much of its time fossicking for ideas.

While things have only gotten worse since Labor clung to power by the barest of margins, at least this week we got the Old Julia™ back in question time, despite the best efforts of Harry Jenkins to bludgeon us into a coma with his Speaker-centric take on the New Parody-me.

The problem for the current Labor line-up is that, whereas Kevin Rudd had Gillard and Lindsay Tanner to savage the Opposition, Ms Gillard really only has Anthony Albanese to turn to, especially as Chris Bowen has been given the sh-t sandwich of immigration. Lindsay Tanner’s departure hasn’t merely left a hole in the Labor frontbench, it’s made it look thin and friable. Like Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister is forced to be her own attack dog — although so far this week Mr Abbott’s posture has been that of a dog more inclined to enjoy a nice lie in the sun than get up and snarl at anyone.

And on Monday and yesterday, the PM has been up for it, belabouring the opposition leader for his reliance on three-word slogans, offering her own — admittedly less-honed — versions of the same in mocking response, and continuing with the theme of Abbott-the-wrecker. True, occasionally one longed for the days of Bob Hawke or John Howard, both of whom knew the value of occasionally responding to a particularly otiose question (an otiose opposition question, that is) with a brief “no”, but the sight of a sharp, aggressive Gillard brought to mind the near-forgotten days of 2008 when the opposition groaned whenever a Dixer was directed to the then-deputy leader, signalling they were about to get a kicking.

The deployment of a Strategic Very Short Answer approach yesterday might have served to keep the blood pressure of Speaker Jenkins under control. Harry turned up to question time cranky, and was very soon yelling, dishing out more warnings than the Lost In Space robot and even offering his own version of Julie Bishop’s Blue Steel (thank you David Speers) death stare, a deeply angry glare off at somewhere in the vicinity of mid-on, possibly prompting Mal Washer to wonder what on earth he has done to provoke such cold fury.

Added to the Prime Ministerial feistiness was, yesterday, the unusual sight of this government running a clear, thought-through agenda in relation to a key policy, devoting all of its questions — every single damn one, thank you — to issues around a carbon price, and particularly energy prices. The Rudd government was generally poor at getting its narrative across even when its policies were right. Initially, government actually did the narrative and process stuff properly on climate change — going to the 2007 election with a commitment for action, commissioning Ross Garnaut to consider the broader issue of climate change and how best to address it, then undertaking a Green and White Paper process. It was only later that the policy death-spiralled into a polluters’ payday and drowned under the weight of Penny Wong’s near-ritualistic incantation of “can I say, I think we’ve got the balance right”.

This go round, to which Labor has been dragged by the Greens, it is running a more formalised consultation process via the consultation committees reporting to the climate change committee, and now appears to be making a concerted effort to co-opt the problem of electricity price rises as part of its explanation for the need for a carbon price — all well in advance of the finalisation of any policy.

The opposition has been busy for a year exploiting state-level electricity price rises, hinting that they were somehow caused by the CPRS in a sort of time-travelling tax effect and warning of the massive impact on households of electricity price rises as a result of a carbon price (the impact under the CPRS would have been zero, because households would have been compensated, but that’s a minor detail). This campaign has taken on a more egregiously dishonest note in recent days, with the opposition’s climate action spokesman Greg Hunt claiming Ms Gillard has said a carbon price won’t increase electricity prices. Crikey asked Hunt last week to furnish an example of such a remarkable statement; all that Hunt could offer was a line from a Gillard speech in which she said the lack of a carbon price was creating uncertainty and thereby increasing electricity prices.

This formed the basis of an ill-timed Alex Hawke question yesterday (not to mention a rather incoherent Hunt interview this morning); showing no evidence they had noticed the government was spending all afternoon on carbon price issues, the opposition gave the Prime Minister an opportunity to repeat the points she had made the question immediately beforehand on a carbon price, and her quotation of Ian Macfarlane, who had carelessly ruined the opposition narrative during the election campaign by admitting that electricity prices were rising for reasons that had nothing to do with federal government policies.

On recent form, this example of coherent communication from the government will last five minutes. Still, having reluctantly committed itself to a carbon price after its election campaign silliness on the issue, it’s not a bad idea to try to establish the case for it first.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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