While the Prime Minister has so far been able to skate over destabilisation, dumb ministers and departing frontbenchers, his government is starting to look ragged, and no amount of Turnbull elan can hide it.

Today’s 50-50 Newspoll might be a rogue, but it’s not significantly different to the 52-48 level of recent Essential and Fairfax-Ipsos polls. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s unpopularity doesn’t seem to be affecting Labor’s vote substantially (remember the truth revealed by Tony Abbott: you don’t have to be a popular opposition leader to win power).

And clearly, Labor’s negative gearing announcement has rattled the government. Despite his opponents entering the field with a controversial policy that powerful sectional interests and some media outlets have furiously attacked, Treasurer Scott Morrison had a shocker of a week. He delivered a universally panned Press Club address and then embarked on a media blitz where he was the one getting blitzed by hostile interviewers — even shock jock Alan Jones. This is the man who is supposed to be the key economic salesman and key economic attack dog of the government, but he did more damage to himself than anyone else.

And even Turnbull ended the week sounding exactly like Tony Abbott, warning that Labor would reduce the value of Australians’ homes, the kind of scare campaign that Turnbull expressly said he would never engage in. It also didn’t fit particularly well with Morrison’s angle of attack, that Labor’s policy would drive the price of new homes up because investors would pile into new homes and force low-income earners out of that market. So now the government’s official line is that negative gearing will both drive prices up and down.

Then came a proposed attack on compulsory super, as if the government needed more confusion and speculation on “tax reform”, or what it dresses up as tax reform but which seems more about looking after Liberal donors and giving flesh to the Liberals’ ideological obsessions.

By successfully running its own scare campaign on the GST, and successfully portraying a five-month-old government as dithering, Labor has countered a Turnbull narrative of agile, reformist government and used the very expectations stoked by Turnbull against him. Suddenly, Labor is looking agile, innovative and reformist, while the government looks befuddled and reactive. That means an early election to capitalise on Turnbull’s popularity — more likely now, given the Greens have agreed to a deal on Senate reform — is no longer quite the safe play, a lay-down misere, even, that we all thought it was.

And the issue around the asylum seeker infant Asha directly reflects that reactivity. Asha reflects what will be an increasing problem created by the Department of Immigration’s needlessly punitive detention system: many medical professionals are unlikely to be able to concur with discharging a child from their care into a deeply toxic and dangerous environment like the one we have created on Nauru. Someone within the government might have worked out that this is going to be a continuing problem while we adopt a policy that breaks minds and bodies and therefore requires taxpayer-funded treatment in Australia for its victims. So far, the only policy response from the Department is to build a bigger hospital on Nauru so injured and ill asylum seekers can be treated without any risk of them setting foot in Australia. But that’s not going to help in the short term.

Instead, yesterday Immigration Minister Peter Dutton belatedly said Asha would not yet be returning to Nauru, but would remain in community detention. He also said that had been the idea all along and that if only activists stopped creating trouble, it would make life easier for the government. It was a clear echo of Immigration secretary Mike Pezzullo’s whine at Senate estimates that people criticising offshore processing just made it harder for the department to be compassionate.

It was a dumb line from a bureaucrat, but now his minister is repeating it as a fig leaf for the government’s clumsy handling of a problem it created itself.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey