As Labor patiently waits for voters to stop being charmed by Malcolm Turnbull and start demanding some substance, it is adding to its growing policy pile despite the election ostensibly being deep into next year. Today’s announcement of significantly higher emissions-abatement goals than the government’s — 45% by 2030 based on 2005 levels and zero net carbon emissions by 2050 — was the third policy this week. There was also one on providing domestic violence leave, and a nanny-state tobacco excise hike to punish poor people for smoking.

Put those with an as-yet undetailed commitment to return to a carbon price, a plan to reduce superannuation tax concessions and even a politically risky interest in negative gearing (one that had a rabid Tony Abbott claiming Bill Shorten wanted to drive down house prices), and no one can complain Labor is adopting a small-target strategy. Rolling out policy was Labor’s plan before the removal of Abbott, driven by a fear of repeating Tony Abbott’s error of being relentlessly negative in opposition, only to discover once elected you couldn’t switch to actual governing. But the swapping of Turnbull for Abbott has only encouraged the policy process. Shorten can’t hope to compete with the Prime Minister in terms of popularity with voters, so he has to produce some substance and hope that voters eventually start to wonder why Turnbull talks so much but doesn’t seem to do a lot.

Parliament will drift to an anti-climactic close for the year next week, with both Shorten and Turnbull away. Labor spent this week preoccupied first with the non-existent government plan to raise the GST to 15%, about which we endured 11 questions, and then latterly with Liberal MP Mal Brough and the Slipper diary controversy.

Neither topic will offer much joy for Labor. Unlike the Abbott carbon price campaign to which it has been compared, Labor’s incessant repetition of a 15% GST and its supposed effects on low income earners has the disadvantage that the government isn’t actually planning to do anything of the sort. Turnbull almost obsessively repeats over and over that tax reform must be “fair”; the idea that he’s going to repeat the profound error of Abbott and Hockey and try to turn unfairness into a kind of moral virtue is bizarre. The main problem with changing the GST is that the actual benefits to the economy are limited; political pain for minimal gain is the sort of Hockeyesque strategy that it’s hard to see Turnbull making.

Yesterday, the constant questions on the GST gave way to an extended focus on Mal Brough, mostly from shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, culminating — if that’s not overstating it — in an attempted suspension of standing orders. The problem was Brough appeared entirely untroubled by the barrage of questions. Asked if he would resign, he made yet another hike down to the dispatch box and said dismissively “after due consideration, no”. As both Brough and Turnbull pointed out, there’s precisely zero new information on the whole saga: the ever less relevant Clive Palmer repeating two-year old allegations — on which he’s contradicted himself — in Parliament hasn’t added anything to the story.

Moreover, Brough’s critics seem to have missed that former speaker Peter Slipper was no political innocent savaged in the brutal politics of the Gillard minority government. This was the bloke with a long history of being caught out and having to repay his travel entitlements who swanned around Canberra wineries at our expense. There was most certainly a public interest in any misuse of travel entitlements by Slipper being exposed, regardless of the motivations of Brough or anyone else. And given the track record, or lack thereof, of successful prosecutions of MPs, Labor shouldn’t hold its breath waiting for Brough to quit.

The focus on the GST and Brough meant other, potentially rich political seams went unmined. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen nibbled at the National Party role in Treasurer Scott Morrison’s rejection of the sale of the S. Kidman & Co properties, but the Coalition’s utter confusion on Chinese investment was left unexploited (Palmer had a crack, and prompted Turnbull to fondly remember the days when Clive of China was a Sinophile). And revelations about the dire state of Optus’ hybrid fibre-coaxial network and the likelihood of yet another blowout for NBN (oops, nbn) only got one question.

Given Turnbull, as communications minister, for two years took delight in mocking Labor and former communications minister Stephen Conroy over the NBN — even as it became apparent Turnbull himself was presiding over an expensive debacle in the transition to his hand-picked “multi-technology mix” — you might have thought Labor wouldn’t have been content to just go after current Communications Minister Mitch Fifield in the Senate on the issue but have a swing at Turnbull as well.

Instead, Labor is having about as little impact on Turnbull as Tony Abbott and his government-in-exile are.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey