After the first week of the Coalition’s election campaign was given over to defensive operations, this week it tried to go on the offensive, but found itself dogged both by events beyond its control and an opponent that refuses to stand still.

The Turnbull re-election plan is to staunch the government’s bleeding on issues like banking scandals, multinational tax avoidance, manufacturing and then come out hard at Labor with a stronger, less distracted attack on issues like negative gearing. If successful, that plan should halt the polling momentum away from the government that we’ve seen in recent weeks and re-build the Coalition’s once-impressive lead over Labor.

With an election due on July 2, it has plenty of time for that strategy to unfold over coming weeks.

This week’s submarines announcement, for example, was primarily defensive, designed to shore up the Coalition’s position in South Australia, where its anti-protectionism stance seemed likely to cost it seats like Boothby and Sturt and fuel Nick Xenophon’s charge to hold the balance of power in the Senate. At a minimum of $50 billion, and likely 30% more expensive than having them built offshore, the subs decision is a particularly expensive legacy from the Abbott era. (It was Tony Abbott who, before the 2013 election, committed to build all the subs in Adelaide, before becoming fast friends with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.)

There’s also a defensive feel to today’s launch of the government’s “Smart Cities” plan. Despite drops to the media about much higher borrowing for infrastructure investment, the plan, as announced, is fairly unambitious, revolving around $50 million for more infrastructure planning, an infrastructure financing unit to find “innovative” ways to fund infrastructure projects (something bureaucracies have been doing for more than 20 years, but anyway) and some talk about that unicorn of infrastructure funding engineers, value capture.

Presumably there will be more to come in next week’s budget, and it’s a welcome sign that the Coalition — which traditionally prefers to pretend cities don’t exist when it comes to infrastructure spending — is talking seriously about urban infrastructure. But plainly the government is concerned to be seen to be doing something about housing affordability; housing is repeatedly mentioned in the plan itself and was front and centre in its unveiling today. That’s despite the fact that the plan doesn’t identify any specific proposals to increase housing supply.

Shoehorning housing supply into an infrastructure plan reflects the tricky position the government faces while mounting a scare campaign about Labor’s negative gearing proposal. There is clearly a strong community sentiment that housing is unaffordable in Sydney and Melbourne, and Labor is tapping into it, requiring another defensive operation.

And while it’s not the sort of thing that makes evening news bulletins, infrastructure investment has collapsed under the Coalition; even restoring it to the levels achieved under Labor would count as a success for Turnbull’s new focus on cities.

Undaunted by the Coalition’s negative gearing scare campaign, Labor also launched its climate action policy, daring Turnbull to launch a scare campaign on carbon pricing as well. It’s wilfully nontraditional politics from Labor, inviting its opponents to give it their best shot. Paul Keating successfully ran a scare campaign on a GST despite having earlier championed one, so technically there’s a precedent for Turnbull to run a successful anti-carbon price campaign, but Keating didn’t lose his leadership over a GST, nor did he have a problem with voters being unclear about what he stood for.

In each case — the negative gearing non-announcement, the submarines announcement, the response to Labor’s climate policy, and probably today’s cities announcement — the government has also appeared to be in a hurry to move on. Turnbull was still blogging about negative gearing as he went to Adelaide to announce the submarine decision, then he had duties at Port Arthur for the 20th anniversary of the massacre there (where he gave an excellent speech — it’s worth reading) and today is about cities. The focus will shift over the weekend to whatever elements of the budget remain unannounced, but Tuesday night’s statement will be overshadowed by the subsequent countdown to Turnbull’s trip to Yarralumla to officially launch the election.

It’s a truism that the media cycle is now faster than ever, particularly given social media chews up, gets outraged about and then spits out issues within a matter of hours, but there’s been a strange lack of attention span to the government’s major announcements; even normally docile government supporters at News Corp have noticed it. The political adage that voters only start to notice your message just when you’re getting sick of repeating it seems to have been replaced with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it approach that, unless one was very much mistaken, might be confused with Kevin Rudd Mark 1’s obsession with having an “announceable” every day.

And then, to demonstrate Harold Macmillan’s perhaps apocryphal line about events being what he feared most, along came the closure of Manus Island to put the government in a bind, particularly after Immigration Minister Peter Dutton appeared to contradict the Prime Minister by saying the government had been working on the possible threat of a successful legal challenge to detention for over a year. If it had indeed been beavering away on the possibility of Manus being shut for such a period of time, it gave no evidence of it in its startled reaction to the PNG government’s announcement.

Notionally, it’s a good outcome for the Coalition to be talking about asylum seekers in the lead-up to an election. But the problem it now faces is a direct result of the Coalition’s failure to properly understand the Houston-Aristotle-L’Estrange report on asylum seekers to Julia Gillard in 2012, which recommended offshore processing but only as a stepping stone to a broader, permanent regional solution to maritime asylum seekers. Despite nearly three years in office, the government has been unwilling or unable to forge such an agreement, beyond the farcical and ridiculously expensive agreement with Cambodia — who can forget Scott Morrison toasting its success! — that has demonstrably failed.

Between this failure to nut out a regional approach to the issue, and its deliberate policy of exemplary punishment and wilful neglect of detainees, the Coalition is at risk of wrecking offshore processing as a viable policy tool for Australia. The likes of Immigration Secretary Mike Pezzullo might prefer to blame the media and refugee advocates, but the government has now been caught out by events and has no one to blame but itself.

If you’re an outfit relying on everything going right with its election strategy to secure a come-from-behind win, it doesn’t help to leave yourself hostage to external events, but that’s where Malcolm and Co. currently are.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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