Labor doesn’t have many good days at the moment but yesterday was definitely the best they’ve had for a long time. Tony Abbott’s Benny Hill act left the opposition badly rattled and the government stepped up the pressure in question time.

Smart parties know when to step it up a gear and pour on the pressure on their opponents, and when to back off (Abbott appears not to have grasped this tactical nuance; thus the widespread conviction that he’s overplayed his hand on Craig Thomson with remorseless attacks). The government, not normally known for its political smarts, sensed that Running Man Abbott had stumbled — well, more accurately, been body checked by Warren Entsch — and went hard in question time, with frontbenchers apparently quaffing angry pills before heading into the chamber.

Normally mild-mannered Greg Combet humbled Greg Hunt over the carbon price impact on local council vehicles. Anthony Albanese, having to start off slowly after Anna Burke’s rebuke to the chamber about Greg Wilton, launched into Abbott on road transport costs. Indeed Combet was up a couple of times. The government’s intention is clear — it wants to hold the opposition to account for every exaggerated claim about the impact of the carbon price, hoping not merely to avoid any impact from the commencement of the carbon price on July 1 but turn it into a political winner by undermining Abbott’s credibility and relentlessly selling its cash handouts. Expect more of the same today.

What it failed to do, unusually, was go over the top on Abbott’s fleeing the chamber. The normal Labor approach when gifted an opposition fumble is to wildly overplay it, thereby negating its effectiveness. In this case, apart from a few “he can run but he can’t hide” (groan) references and Wayne Swan’s pet Three Stooges meme that sent us scurrying to Wikipedia to look up Shemp, the government left it alone, confident the footage of the mad scramble would be perfectly adequate. Spread all over the evening news bulletins, it certainly was.

This is Julia Gillard’s last chance. Labor is committing money to an advertising campaign and the government will push hard on its handouts in the lead up to July 1. The sitting fortnight at the end of June looms as a key test for her, the last days before the winter recess. At least it looks as though she has a recovery strategy, however implausible, in place. That Abbott has tripped up this week is a bonus. Even a small recovery in the polls might be enough to give Gillard some breathing room.

Some solace came from an unlikely source this week: Newspoll. The narrative that emerged from it was that Labor MPs were buoyed by the numbers. In fact there was nothing to be buoyed by — the primary vote movements were within the margin of error (and the Coalition vote went up!), and despite a small shift in sentiment toward Gillard and away from Abbott, both leaders remain hideously unpopular. But, demonstrating that there must always be a story behind every poll no matter how inconvenient for the journalist or outlet concerned, Labor had the best of it.

But Gillard’s period as Prime Minister has repeatedly shown that any momentum she develops is quickly snuffed out by a self-inflicted wound; this government always finds a way to stuff things up even when they look like they’re starting to go well. By those standards, the next Gillard stumble is only days away. Labor MPs will be desperately hoping she can break the pattern and build the pressure on Abbott, something we’ve rarely seen since December 2009. Abbott sometimes does peculiar things even when the Coalition has a double digit poll lead.

Who knows what he’d do if placed in the novel circumstance of actually being under pressure.

Peter Fray

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