The first parliamentary sitting period of the Abbott government has concluded and the less-than-thrilling conclusion is that both sides are decidedly underwhelming.

That’s in part normal for a change of government. Look down into the House of Reps chamber and suddenly what was an opposition frontbench that one rarely heard from (or in Peter Dutton’s case, never heard from) is in government and answering questions, while what’s left of the former government sits opposite them.

In this case, there’s fewer left than usual, due to the number of people who fled the building after the return of Kevin Rudd in June. No Garrett, Crean or Marn, no Smith, no Emerson to provide a theatrical turn, and no Rudd himself, who didn’t show this week as he furiously writes the last correspondence standing between him and resignation — or Julia Gillard, who now apparently travels the international chat-show circuit spruiking the annihilation of privacy.

Wayne Swan sits on the backbench, studiously ignoring Joe Hockey’s efforts to bait him, almost exactly where Peter Costello sat for nearly two years doing the same. And some fixtures on the backbench have vanished too: no more will Daryl Melham’s dulcet tones echo in the chamber; Dick Adams will no longer struggle to his feet to ask a question. Labor’s ranks look thin, and not just because there’s so many Coalition MPs that some of the Nats have to sit on the other side of the aisle.

On the government side, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has performed strongly, regularly mocking Labor over the NBN. Education Minister Christopher Pyne has, as his many, many fans on the Left will be unhappy to learn, taken the transition to government in his stride. Treasurer Joe Hockey has tried to channel his inner Costello, without great effect, but has started more strongly than Swan, who was never a compelling parliamentary performer, certainly did.

“The Prime Minister has continued his transition to statesman mode that began earlier this year. The demeanour is now even calmer …”

Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley has been targeted by Labor over childcare funding and the schoolkids’ bonus, but she’s handled it coolly every time she’s made the long hike to the despatch box. Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has tried the attack stuff but stumbles over his lines too much and has an unfortunate skin-voice link going, where the louder he speaks, the redder he turns, meaning if Labor MPs chatter while he answers a question, as they did yesterday, he eventually returns to his seat looking like he’s about to keel over with a stroke.

Nor has Speaker Bronwyn Bishop covered herself in glory, having demonstrated that she’s very much the Coalition’s Speaker, right down to her use of “we” in relation to the government.

The Prime Minister, however, has continued his transition to statesman mode that began earlier this year. The demeanour is now even calmer, the voice even more moderated, constantly elevating into what might be called Abbott’s “more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger” register; there’s certainly been none of the high-pitched shouting that marked his innumerable suspension and censure motions when in opposition. With Turnbull, at least for now, and Pyne and Hockey able to carry the attack to Labor, he doesn’t have the Julia Gillard problem of having a lack of attack dogs to launch at the opposition — Gillard had Albo and that was about it.

On Labor’s side, leader Bill Shorten still has Infrastructure and Transport spokesman Albo, although his portfolio means he’s out of the action a bit, and shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, but he himself has been restrained to the point of apparent sedation; he also retains his affection for peculiar phrases — when a minister, in question time he used to speak, mysteriously, of “the airport test”; this week he referred to a “Team Australia” moment as he sought to ensure as little space as possible between him and Abbott on the Indonesian debacle.

That’s understandable given it not merely happened on Labor’s watch but Labor now has very little foreign affairs talent, with Tanya Plibersek having only just moved into the portfolio. But you wouldn’t have caught Opposition Leader Tony Abbott referring to Team Australia. It was Team Coalition, and always will be.

Quite what is guiding Abbott’s handling of the Indonesian mess isn’t overly clear: perhaps it’s a desire to appear tough in the eyes of Australians who continue to regard Indonesia as somewhere between a Third World tourist destination and a military threat, rather than an economy that will shortly overtake our own in size and eventually be one of the world’s largest. But a more reasonable interpretation is that this is a new government, with virtually no foreign policy experience, confronted with a highly sensitive matter that wasn’t its fault and that it doesn’t want to publicly own up to.

A failure to assuage Indonesian anger, however, will mean it won’t matter what the motivation is, there will merely be a bad relationship with a country that all agree is one of the most important for Australia. And that will be Abbott’s fault, not anyone else’s.

Parliament resumes on December 2 for the last sitting fortnight of the year.

Peter Fray

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