Labor made an interesting tactical decision on Monday that perhaps does more to explain its current surprisingly strong opinion polling than anything else.

Labor could have used question time to chase Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who had been forced to admit on Saturday night that his initial story about the killing of Reza Barati, whom he implied had brought his injuries on himself by escaping, was wrong. They could have used it to chase Health Minister Fiona Nash over her peculiarly pro-food industry take on her portfolio duties. Instead, Labor came into question time and asked about jobs. Morrison’s unravelling attempt to blame Barati for his own death didn’t get a question until 25 minutes in. Nash came after that.

The pursuit of Morrison petered out during the week, and Labor’s heart rarely seemed to be in it, appropriately given they reopened Manus Island; only toward the end of the week did Morrison and Prime Minister Tony Abbott look uncomfortable as Labor extracted that Morrison had waited a long time after finding out he was wrong about the location of Barati’s attack before revealing it. Health shadow Catherine King’s pursuit of Nash was more successful, despite the best efforts of Speaker Bronwyn Bishop to block any scrutiny of the government. King repeatedly asked why there was such a gap between Nash’s account of events — in which staffer Alastair Furnival had selflessly fallen on his sword because he had become a political liability — and Abbott’s version of events, in which Furnival had broken the code of conduct for ministerial staff and had to resign. Abbott’s way of explaining the difference was to refuse to explain.

But Labor’s focus all week was on jobs outside Parliament, as Qantas served up yet another in what for the Coalition must be an infuriating series of high-profile job loss announcements. Yesterday Labor backbenchers repeatedly taunted Abbott that for every three-minute answer he gave, another job was lost. Shorten asked Abbott to show the same tenacity he was displaying in defending Nash’s job for the jobs of other Australians.

This is Labor’s natural territory. Even during the dark days of 2011 and 2012 under Julia Gillard, when voters seemed to have acquired a violent hatred of all things Labor, they still rated it as the party better at protecting Australian jobs. And much of politics since the election has been fought on exactly this territory.

In taking the decisions not to provide handouts to General Motors and SPC Ardmona, the government has displayed guts and good sense. But it has also handed Labor a weapon to exploit the succession of job cut announcements; the impression that the Coalition simply doesn’t care about jobs. The most effective political messages are the ones that reinforce voters’ views, not contradict them. This is one message that resonates with voters.

That will be even more the case after Abbott signalled in question time yesterday that no loan guarantees for Qantas would be forthcoming because, as he so correctly and pithily put it, “[w]hy should the government do for one what it is not prepared to do for all?”. But the Prime Minister’s comment came two weeks after Treasurer Joe Hockey had gone to great lengths to explain the four criteria that he believed Qantas satisfied for exactly that question.

The government’s sudden lack of interest in loan guarantees may be a way of ramping up the pressure on Labor to back (much-needed) changes to the Qantas Sale Act to allow greater foreign investment. But it’s a risky ploy when the government already has a reputation for sitting back and doing nothing to stop job losses, and it will be very hard for the government now to extend loan guarantees to Qantas down the track without offering the same to the rest of the domestic aviation sector.

Meantime, Labor will get on with cynically exploiting the government’s willingness to hold the line on industry handouts. That’s what oppositions do — and after Abbott’s behaviour as opposition leader, entirely unsurprising. Judging by the polls, it’s also paying off with voters who grow more worried about their own job prospects with every Holden, every Toyota, every Alcoa, every Qantas …

Peter Fray

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