The political year, like the year in the real world, has it rhythms. Once the country lazily drifts back from summer holidays the focus grows on the budget, the big political set piece of the year and a government’s chance to tell the story of how it wants to govern and the values that it will govern by. Sometimes, as in 2014, it is wildly successful at that in ways it never intended. This year’s budget story was of a government that had shifted significantly into the centre. A subsequent, hastily prepared energy policy has confirmed that shift.

But because, since 2014, we’ve had a Senate that looked more like wildlife documentary than a parliamentary broadcast, the end of each parliamentary session has become a white-knuckle time when the government tries to get some critical bill through the senate before it departs. One of Tony Abbott’s problems was that sessions almost invariably ended with key bills failing. One of Malcolm Turnbull’s successes has been that, on at least a couple of occasions, he’s been able to deliver wins. Sometimes, as with the ABCC bill, that’s by dint of caving in and gutting the bill; this week’s Gonski success was a mix of caving in and hard graft, which delivered a win as parliament was scheduled to flee Canberra for warmer climes for six weeks.

One thing Turnbull has in common with his predecessor is an enthusiasm for trying to use national security as a political tactic against Labor. While Turnbull isn’t as blatant as Abbott, who at one stage accused Labor of “rolling out the red carpet for terrorists” (despite there being two major terrorists incidents during his prime ministership and a third shortly afterward), the current attempts to further ratchet up citizenship requirements are a fairly unsubtle piece of dog-whistling. After all, the current requirements, which according to Turnbull and Peter Dutton are so unfit for purpose, are the result of a very similar attempt to wedge Labor a decade ago by John Howard.

Abbott’s efforts failed, mainly because Labor clung to him like glue, or perhaps some other substance, on national security. Judging by the polls, Turnbull hasn’t had much luck either, despite the efforts of Peter Dutton to portray himself as some sort of hard man (albeit a hard man who oversees the most spectacularly incompetent department in the government). Interestingly, this week Labor opted to openly challenge the citizenship change, and appeared to find a successful flaw by talking about university-level English requirements, leaving Dutton to breathlessly insist that they weren’t. Problem is, it’s entirely plausible that Dutton is both malicious enough to impose such an absurdly high requirement or that Immigration is incompetent enough to have actually stuffed that up — after all, virtually everything that department does, from its own internal staff management, to its office accommodation, to its handling of citizenship applications to managing the 457 visa program to its procurement and management of major contracts, turns to shit.

That Labor feels confident enough to openly challenge the government on its attempts to exploit national security says much about how it doesn’t believe the current government has an electoral advantage in owning national security.

The citizenship test, along with the plan to force welfare recipients to participate in a Hunger Games-style survival contest or whatever this month’s welfare crackdown is, and the continuing talk of coal-fired power, are red meat being tossed to the Liberal base, but on big issues the government has shifted leftward, toward big spending, industry intervention, regulation — and not particularly caring about the impact on investors. Screen jockeys like this character can issue demands all they like, but this government, like other governments around the world, is too worried about surviving to keep slavishly obeying markets.

The Gonski win not merely ensures the issue of schools funding will not bubble away through winter, but that Turnbull has evidence his switch to the political centre can get results. He just needs that to translate into better polling numbers

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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