While the commencement of the new Senate has given the Abbott government an opportunity to start passing its legislative agenda, at the moment the political narrative is still outside its control, as it has been since its pre-budget positioning went off the rails in April.
The risk is that July 1 ends up like January — that was when the government was going to use the summer break to re-establish its political footing after a bad start, only to keep on stumbling. At the moment Tony Abbott remains deeply disliked, Labor is well ahead in the polls, and the federal damage has reinforced the problems of inept Coalition governments in Victoria and Queensland.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
In particular, Clive Palmer continues to dominate the agenda. In probably the shortest National Press Club address in history, yesterday Palmer casually announced he was blowing another multi-billion dollar hole in the budget, while at the same time backflipping on Direct Action and declaring it would be passed if the government backed ETS Mark Clive, the trading scheme that will be priced at zero until the Republican Party decides to accept basic science again.
Plainly Clive has been stung by the criticism that his ETS will never be more than a bizarre announcement with Al Gore. Further, it had been at least five minutes since the last Palmer announcement about anything, and Palmer must keep moving or die, always pushing on to the next announcement, the next stunt, the next media opportunity. Where he’s been is of no interest — don’t you worry about that — because it’s where he’s going next that’s important. And thus he keeps the political agenda in a constant state of turmoil.
At some point, the government must be hoping, Palmer burns out — either he overplays his hand with the electorate, or he simply runs out of backflips and new positions to announce (the 10-minute Press Club speech yesterday might suggest that has started to happen) and slides to a halt, or News Corporation’s incessant campaign against him on behalf of the Coalition scores a hit of some kind. Or, as seems more likely, his party of neophytes cracks under pressure and the strangely familiar Jacqui “not backing down” Lambie, leviathan Glenn Lazarus and, um, the other one, Dio Wang, go their separate ways, as history suggests microparties inevitably do, and deliver the government some wins. At which point, given Clive’s history, the recriminations, abuse and CIA conspiracy theories will start.
Accordingly, the government’s best strategy might simply be patience, waiting for the political cycle to move on, for the media to tire of Palmer, for the pressure of being the key to every piece of contested legislation to wear down people with no experience of politics, let alone the parliamentary variety. A break will surely come — won’t it?
In the meanwhile, however, there is the small matter of its fiscal consolidation plans looking more and more tattered — and vindicating the criticism of Joe Hockey deciding to take a holiday this week. The Treasurer has indeed more than earned a break and some time with his young family, but taking it at the moment when the fate of some key budget measures is in the balance won’t do much to secure their passage. A significant political problem for the government is that at the moment, the opposition is paying no political price for blocking the bulk of its savings measures; even without Clive, the government’s message about fiscal vandalism isn’t cutting through. Indeed, if anything, voters are only too pleased to see the government’s will being thwarted.
Maybe it’s time to reset the government’s key messages. What’s happening at the moment isn’t working, and the government is being forced to wait for its opponents to mess up.