When MPs gather in Canberra after the end of the winter recess next week, the political landscape won’t look like many thought it would when Parliament wrapped up amid fury and anguish at the end of June.
The asylum seeker stand-off remains unresolved, and we’ll plunge straight back into that with the Houston panel report, which goes to the government on Monday. That never plays well for Labor, so the government might yet find itself mired in another boats crisis quick smart.
But the winter break certainly didn’t play out according to opposition plans. July 1 came and went without any drama associated with the carbon price. August 1 then came and went without drama. Yesterday’s jobs data for July saw a lift in employment after June had seen a sizeable fall. Non-official inflation data suggested our main concern might be deflation, rather than the rampant price rises predicted by the Coalition. Even many Liberal voters, far more likely to see the economic cloud than any silver lining, professed to have not seen any price rises.
Then there was the curious framing exercise, delivered via a one-two punch from first Wayne Swan and then, this week, Julia Gillard. Swan risked ridicule by embracing his inner Boss, but the Springsteen stuff enabled Swan, and Labor, to get a cut-through message out about its values in a way that just another speech, just another interview, would never have done. Moreover, it complemented one of the government’s few reputational strengths, the impression that it is more inclined to manage the economy for working Australians rather than business, as voters tend to think the Coalition does. It also comes at a time when the government has near-utopian unemployment, inflation and interest rate figures to boast of.
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The Coalition’s response to Wayne Swansteen was to miss the point; by citing Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill as his influences, Joe Hockey thought he was engaged in a contest to impress voters with his high-mindedness (difficult when most voters are unlikely to have heard of either) rather than to connect with them.
Gillard followed up with the electricity speech this week. That, too, wrong-footed the Coalition. The sound point to make would have been to wonder why Labor has only discovered this problem when the major state governments are Coalition ones, and kept quiet about gouging and over-investment when Labor state governments were responsible for it. Instead, Tony Abbott went over the top in claiming Gillard was fabricating the whole problem, a claim so egregious it didn’t take long for his own shadow minister to contradict him and say that not merely was there a problem, but that the Coalition would fix it more quickly than Labor would.
Manifestly, Abbott was let down by his staff, who failed to brief him, or gave him dud advice in encouraging him to wish away a key factor behind rising power prices. It also confirmed the impression that, once you get him off attacking the carbon price and asylum seekers, Abbott is a flake. Malcolm Turnbull, for all his many and varied faults of political style, was across most issues as leader because of his genuine interest in public policy. That’s why he was able to offer intelligent en passant comments on the electricity issue this week.
Part of the impression of Abbott’s flakiness, of course, is that he prefers a political approach to policy, which is why he’s now adopted a media policy of wanting freedom of speech for News Ltd but greater censorship of the internet, a stance that grates with those of us who like consistency and rigour, but that maximises his political interests.
Gillard didn’t raise electricity merely in the hope of an Abbott fumble or to bag conservative premiers; it was part insurance policy, designed to encourage voters, when the next round of electricity bills arrive, to not just blame her, and perhaps even to wonder why they’re being compensated for the carbon price but not for what Barry O’Farrell or Campbell Newman are doing. It’s also part of Labor’s continuing efforts to pander to the electorate’s misperception of cost of living pressures. There’s no FuelWatch or GroceryWatch this time around, but the threat of regulation, one that it’s safe to make given the electricity market is a purely government creation in a way that most markets aren’t.
The PM also benefited from one of those pieces of political good fortune that come along once in a while. This week’s Newspoll improbably showed a five-point rise in Labor’s primary vote. In fact the previous Newspoll, which had Labor down at 28%, looked like an outlier, but as usual the media reported it as though it was a perfect channelling of the electoral zeitgeist rather than a statistical exercise with a margin of error. The result: the illusion of momentum for the government that ensures there’s less talk than there otherwise would be of the leadership as MPs return to Canberra.
This government’s history is to follow up a good fortnight like the one it has just had with some sort of self-inflicted debacle that reverses all the momentum and ensures that Abbott’s flakiness is never subjected to sustained pressure. For that reason, the Houston report and the next move on asylum seekers now looms as the next crucial test for Gillard. But then, there have been innumerable “crucial tests” for her set by commentators and colleagues alike, and she keeps on keeping on regardless. Maybe at some point she’ll be able to get the pressure off her and onto her opponent. The result may not be pretty.