The Gillard government’s problems are deep-seated and not easily solved. This is a government so close to the edge of oblivion that the merest whim of an independent could kill it off. The only thing it really has going for it is Tony Abbott.

It’s increasingly clear an inability to sell its policies isn’t Labor’s problem, or at best is only a symptom of a more profound problem. The Prime Minister keeps evoking the Hawke-Keating government, but it lacks both the reform commitment and personnel necessary to come anywhere near the achievements of the 1980s and early 1990s.

The Hawke governments had strong frontbenches. Keating’s first ministry did too, though the rot began to set in after John Dawkins bailed out. Even so, such was Keating’s reformist determination, he kept the momentum up on seriously big reforms such as competition policy, superannuation and enterprise bargaining.

The Gillard frontbench is weak. Yes, the loss of Lindsay Tanner and John Faulkner are blows from which any government would struggle to recover, but little talent has failed come through and replace them. Chris Bowen has stepped up, and Greg Combet too. But Stephen Smith is in Defence where, as was the case when he was Foreign Minister, his political strengths — primarily calm and a reassuring sense of knowing what he’s talking about — remain untapped. Tony Burke has struggled with water, Penny Wong has disappeared without trace in Finance and Bill Shorten has impressed everyone with how unimpressive he is.

In yesterday’s AFR, there was a piece from Sally Patten on how Shorten may be considering walking away from the financial services reforms to which Bowen committed last year — including on the “opt-in” provision. Nothing would better symbolise this government’s lack of reformist guts than for Shorten to turn tail in the face of a self-interested industry campaign on an issue that costs workers and taxpayers millions. Still, keeping the big end of town on side would be good for Shorten’s political ambitions.

But the biggest problem is Wayne Swan. Derided in the early days of the Rudd government, Swan slowly built a reputation for competence in the face of the GFC when the rest of the developed world went to hell. But as deputy he’s an ineffective support for the Prime Minister, more Brian Howe than Paul Keating or Peter Costello. He can’t prosecute a case in Parliament or in the press. It leaves Labor, which should be able to crow about the remarkable economic success Swan presided over and is partly responsible for, permanently on the defensive on economic matters. It’s worse on the carbon price scheme, where he carries the baggage of that fateful Rudd government decision to abandon the CPRS.

Reformist governments need effective treasurers, need senior personnel who can prosecute a case against their opponents and in favour of reform. Hawke had Keating. Howard had Costello. Gillard is not getting that support from Swan.

And in the end you wonder just how committed to climate change action the government is. The Rudd government was more interested in using climate change as a political tool than in seriously addressing it. And the two advocates of action in that debate to drop the CPRS, Rudd and Tanner, have been sidelined or left. For all the “Bob Brown is the real Prime Minister” tripe, would Labor be tackling a carbon price without the Greens pushing them?

The only joy is that, for all the bad polls — and the Howard and Keating governments recovered from worse numbers — the public seems pretty clear in not liking Tony Abbott. Abbott’s approval ratings have waxed and waned, but around a low level — he’s spent considerable time in net disapproval territory, but occasionally made ventures into positive territory in the past. But for Abbott to fail to build his standing in the face of what voters perceive to be a blatant breach of faith by the Prime Minister suggests voters have made up their minds on the man, come what may.

One’s instinct is to look at Malcolm Turnbull as the answer, but remember that he, too, suffered poor approval ratings, and not just after the Godwin Grech debacle. That might change given he has been purged of his sins in that regard by the ordeal of losing his leadership on principle, but the numbers show none of Brendan Nelson, Turnbull or Abbott achieved the sort of standing with voters that the last successful Opposition Leader, one Kevin Rudd, managed.

Still, with an eight-point lead and Labor struggling to convince on what will be the biggest reform of this parliamentary term, Coalition MPs don’t have to worry about that just yet.

Peter Fray

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