A weird, but significant, calm pervaded politics this week. With the PM absent, a temporary ceasefire on the normal contumely directed at her, and Tony Abbott keeping a low profile within and without Parliament, the politics was more touch footy than contact sport. And we got a question time that occasionally bordered on fulfilling its real purpose, at least from the opposition’s point of view.

Yesterday, for example, with Abbott absent from Parliament to attend a funeral of one of the ADF personnel killed last week, Malcolm Turnbull asked a perfectly good question about the NBN rollout to greenfields housing developments. Jamie Briggs inquired why the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency was buying wine and beer fridges. Neither question, unfortunately, went to the relevant minister, but to Wayne Swan, for whom proceedings were definitely business-as-usual. His laughable response to Turnbull was “our rollout is rolling out consistent with the timeframe and numbers that we have published, and it will continue to be rolled out.”

That wasn’t as appalling as Swan declaring earlier that he hadn’t been reading from the document he had just been holding in his hand at the dispatch box reading in answer to a question from Joe Hockey, who demanded he table it. Why Swan didn’t simply admit he was reading from it but claim it was confidential — the normal way such requests are fobbed off — is a matter of mystery. The result was probably the most blatant example of a minister misleading Parliament in the history of federation, even if the most trivial as well.

But the normal level of aggro was missing, even when Abbott was in attendance. He asked six questions during the week, usually kicking proceedings off and then staying quiet for the rest of question time. And Abbott was, of course, laying low media-wise. Doubtless he was hoping to make it to the end of the sitting week without answering the inevitable questions about his actions 35 years ago, but that strategy proved unsustainable as two more witnesses came forward with their own, in one case anonymous, take on events, without either being able to claim they saw what happened. Abbott finally broke cover this morning to again deny the claim, fusing his two lines of denial — “I don’t recall” and “it never happened” — into “I don’t recall because it never happened”.

Abbott shouldn’t have to address this utter non-issue, but he left himself open to questions because he wanted to have it both ways on Julia Gillard’s Slater & Gordon matter, not wanting to publicly associate himself with the smear campaign, but unable to resist it either. And his outright denial of the incident, coming after he claimed he couldn’t remember, raises the stakes — suddenly his opponents can claim it’s no longer about his behaviour as a youth, but whether he is lying now.

Still, it means everyone’s student political history is now open to scrutiny. This could get nasty for all sides.

It continues Abbott’s run of poor form lately, which started with his staff letting him go on 7.30 without preparation for the simplest of questions. Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb had to do the headkicking to pull the xenophobes in the National Party into line on foreign investment. And the opposition has struggled to find an effective response to Labor taunts about cuts to education and public service numbers in NSW and Queensland. Even a simple trip to Bendigo Hospital a week ago (Bendigo will be in play again at the next election as Steve Gibbons, who turned it into a safe Labor seat, is retiring) to attack the carbon price yielded hostile media coverage and a deeply unflattering photo.

Previously, when Abbott had a rough trot — and all leaders have rough trots — he could rely on Labor to stuff up sufficiently spectacularly to pull the focus off him. But Labor has cut down the error rate lately; even the supertrawler shemozzle this week, which demonstrated in miniature pretty much every claim that’s been made about Labor’s incompetence and “sovereign risk”, managed to end the week on a winning note for Labor with its bill squeaking through.

The Labor hope — or at least the Gillard Labor hope — is that, by remaining error-free, it keeps the focus on Abbott, confident that doubts are starting to emerge about him. The difficulty for Labor is that Abbott is already deeply unpopular with voters — even more so than the Prime Minister — and yet it doesn’t have any impact on voting intention; people are in effect telling pollsters that so much do they loathe Labor they’re prepared to hold their noses about Abbott and make him prime minister just for the satisfaction of turfing them out. Many voters even accept that they won’t do as well under the Coalition as they would under Labor, but it doesn’t faze them — they want rid of them.

The capacity of Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard to start converting Abbott’s unpopularity into voting intention is the key to the PM’s fortunes from here. So far, no luck.