Despite some media attempts to confect a claim that the government was somehow derelict in failing to prevent Qantas’s industrial relations ambush on the weekend, it is Julia Gillard who has emerged from the dispute looking most comfortable.
This is not particularly because of her high-quality crisis management or deft industrial relations touch — the government moved swiftly to get the planes back in the air, yes, but unless you’re a hardline deregulationist, that was the only possible response anyway. Rather, from nowhere, the political agenda has suddenly switched from an array of issues on which Tony Abbott could make life hell for Labor, to one where the Coalition appears increasingly divided.
One of the underappreciated reasons for Abbott’s success as opposition leader is the division that bedevilled Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull entirely vanished in December 2009, and has rarely re-emerged since. This has allowed the Coalition to finally put the focus back on the government, which spent its first two years comfortable in the knowledge its opponents could be relied on to tear themselves apart on a regular basis. And Labor has found life in the spotlight decidedly uncongenial.
Now, serious divisions are emerging again in the Coalition, between the IR hardheads both within and outside the party’s parliamentary ranks, and those chastened by the experience of WorkChoices. And then there’s Abbott himself, whose IR position may owe as much to his DLP ideological heritage as to his caution about giving Labor another chance to run an anti-WorkChoices campaign.
As long as the focus stays on IR, Gillard and Labor will feel more comfortable and confident. This was visible in parliament yesterday, with the government happy to keep the focus on Qantas for a full 90 minutes, and repeatedly invoke the balaclavas and dogs of the waterfront dispute. The dispute may yet turn bad for Labor — or, more likely, Labor will find a way to get its messages hopelessly wrong, like it usually does — but this is home turf for Labor and its beleaguered leader.