A mood of despair seemed to settle over Labor’s parliamentary ranks this week. It could be sensed last week, but it got worse and worse as this week went on. The government is back to where it was before its, and Julia Gillard’s, mild recovery late last year.

That recovery was well-earned. There were no tactical ploys, like luring Peter Slipper into the Speakership at the end of 2011. It was obtained from the smooth introduction of the carbon price, from fewer mistakes by Labor, from a more authentic performance from Julia Gillard and from effective targeting of Tony Abbott.

That’s where the good news ended. The media consensus on the Prime Minister’s decision to reveal the election date was that it was an unmitigated disaster — a view entirely at odds with subsequent polling which revealed voters were relatively pleased to know well out from the event. Nonetheless, that and the subsequent, and entirely confected “government in crisis” coverage when the long-planned resignations of Chris Evans and Nicola Roxon were revealed, seemed to rattle the government. And the first two weeks of the parliamentary year have been marked by a listless performance from its frontline troops, including the PM herself. She needs someone to throw some grenades at her again so she can angry up.

Meantime, Kevin Rudd has continued his “look at me, look at me” performance. His act of dumping responsibility for the MRRT in the laps of Wayne Swan and the PM was particularly galling. Yes, Gillard and Swan bent over backwards to appease some of the world’s biggest tax dodgers when they allowed BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata to dictate the MRRT. They wear the blame for the current iteration of the tax.

But Rudd’s line that he was the innocent victim of Swan’s incompetence over the original iteration is nonsense. Rudd was the one who kept the Henry Review under lock and key for months after it was finalised, then launched it several months out from an election. Rudd was the one who failed to do any preparatory work in explaining to voters the need for a super profits-based resources tax. And Rudd was the one who’d already crippled his own authority a few weeks earlier when he’d “deferred” the CPRS, the decision that more than anything else, including the backstabbing by his colleagues, destroyed his Prime Ministership.

Spare us the martyred innocent routine, Kev.

But the worst aspect of the government’s performance over the last two weeks has been that, once it finally got the political agenda to where it wanted it to be — onto policy — it struggled. The Coalition dutifully confined its Question Time focus to policy matters, albeit of a rather limited kind, around superannuation and the budget. In response, Labor lacked focus. Its core message from here to the election is Gonski, NDIS and managing the economy for working people. And while Gonski and NDIS featured on the parliamentary agenda, there was no narrative (yeah, that word) from Labor, no strategic purpose to its message, particularly once it became mired in the MRRT mess, from which Wayne Swan has yet to extract himself.

As a result, the Opposition didn’t have to work particularly hard to look like a confident alternative government, even if Tony Abbott looked ill at ease in keeping himself statesmanlike and policy-focused.

It’s not as if the Opposition really is a confident alternative government. $30 billion on dams? What is this, 1963? Barnaby Joyce angrily rejected the suggestion this was a “thought bubble”. Certainly not, he insisted, it was a “key policy.” Abbott himself suggested that there were dozens of dam proponents out there waiting to build these things with their own money, if only the government would remove whatever shackles existed – shackles like environmental laws, or community opposition.

Which is the reason why Liberal MP Bob Baldwin immediately announced that there was one bloody dam that wouldn’t be being built — the much-hated proposal for one at Tillegra.

Australia’s infrastructure priorities do not revolve around building dams in the outback. They are — surprise surprise — instead where most Australians live, in our major cities and regional centres. Moreover, infrastructure policy is difficult. Governments don’t have a lazy $30 billion to throw away on dams designed to fulfil some “Asian foodbowl” cliché that won’t generate any substantial return and can’t be sold. Leveraging private sector investment into infrastructure is one challenge (on which Andrew Robb has done some good work for the Coalition). The other is for politicians to have the courage to charge voters for infrastructure, particularly in major cities where a congestion charge is urgently needed.

It’s no wonder Abbott prefers talking about dams and sending public servants to Karratha rather than genuine infrastructure policy challenges.

A half-decent government would be all over this sort of rubbish, making it into a cross on which to nail their opponents. The fact that Labor appears unable to makes the despair of backbenchers all the greater. It’s a despair that, barring an unlikely reversal of Labor’s recent polling momentum, is unlikely to disappear.

Oh well. There’s always Kevin.

Peter Fray

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