Life is usually easier for this troubled government when parliament sits, but the Qantas dispute has made this one its best week since early in the year, before the carbon pricing package sent it stocks, and those of its leader, plummeting.
Fighting on the home ground of industrial relations has given Labor an unexpected boost, particularly as it knows how riven the Coalition is over the issue. Yesterday the opposition abandoned all interest in Qantas in favour of asylum seekers, while Labor was happy to continue discussing issues such as the importance of fairness in industrial relations and who knew what and when about Qantas’s decision to ground its fleet.
That issue has been the subject of a wild beat-up from both sides, with the Coalition falsely claiming the government had been somehow warned that a grounding was on the cards, and the government wrongly suggesting senior opposition figures could have been in on the Qantas decision. Given the toxic nature of the public reaction to Alan Joyce’s decision, any Coalition involvement of any kind would be damning.
There was no Coalition involvement, of course. There’s no substance to the government’s “who knew what and when” line. But it received a boost from Tony Abbott failing to answer questions about it clearly on Tuesday. That came at a doorstop in Canberra. Abbott does a lot of doorstops in Canberra and Queanbeyan, but is rather less enthusiastic about facing a full-blown media conference in Parliament House, where the press gallery can grill him for an extended period.
Perhaps some more of those would sharpen him up and stop unforced errors like Tuesday’s. Joe Hockey didn’t help with his 7.30 appearance on Tuesday night, when he appeared to admit advance knowledge of the decision. Anthony Albanese gleefully seized on that in question time. “I can understand the sensitivity there,” Albanese said mockingly as the opposition used points of order and interjections to disrupt his answer.
It was a good question time for Labor. Perhaps because of his sore throat, Wayne Swan kept his answers mercifully succinct. Perhaps he’ll learn the lesson that Bob Hawke and John Howard understood so well, that a sharp “no” at the dispatch box often beats an extended rant hands-down and looks a lot more statesmanlike. Even Bill Shorten, whose long trips to the dispatch box have normally been symbolic of the gap between reality and ambition, gave a good answer. Indeed, question time was so good for Labor, Abbott called proceedings to a halt, at least sparing Hockey further embarrassment.
There’s a growing sense that Abbott, successful as he has been, has come off the boil in recent weeks. As the carbon package recedes in the rear-view mirror, or at least only furnishes opportunities for the opposition to stumble over how they’ll implement the “blood oath” of repeal, and Abbott keeps his policy cards close to his chest, the opposition’s tactics look more threadbare than usual.
The enormous polling lead it had during the carbon price debate has pulled back — from absolute wipeout to mere slaughter — and Julia Gillard is only spotted at the moment dealing with, to use Bob Hawke’s splendid phrase, “other world leaders”. Labor will hope the polling moves a bit closer to even, in which case there’ll be a lot more pressure and focus on Abbott from his own side. It doesn’t take much for the Coalition to turn on themselves in opposition, and they’ve held it together for a very long time for Abbott.
But Labor’s persistent problem has been that it has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, always finding a way to swing the spotlight back onto itself and its own errors, or let Abbott shape the agenda. It’s unlikely this self-destructive tendency has been exhausted. This government always finds a way to screw up.