Bizarre scenes and shifting mood in Parliament

Bizarre scenes and shifting mood in Parliament

Posted June 01, 2012 07:07:51

It could have been worse. Imagine if the actors in the bizarre scenes in the federal Parliament this week were switched; if it had been the Prime Minister running to avoid a vote and not Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Imagine if Julia Gillard had taken off behind Anthony Albanese and bumped Dick Adams out of the way to get to the doors and avoid a “tainted” vote.

That, for her, would have been the ultimate humiliation and almost certainly the end of a rocky career.

But that’s the difference between government and opposition. Expectations on governments are higher, as they should be. Government is a serious business. Opposition, on the other hand, by definition, is more political. When judgments are flawed or tactics go wrong, nobody gets hurt.

Not so when governments stuff up. That’s why the poor handling of the overseas workers issue matters more than a comical scene from the Parliament that seemed to fit a familiar pattern in the minds of the public anyway.

As Geoff Kitney put it in the Financial Review, Tony Abbott was determined to have the upper hand on a principle and was prepared to look a bit “unhinged” in the process. Australians have known for years that he can be a bit whacky. It’s a character trait that was on display even during the last election campaign, and it did him no real harm.

For a prime minister, on the other hand, a lack of judgment matters far more.

After much internal wrangling and hand wringing, the Government has finally landed in a good place on the enterprise migration agreements. There will be oversight to ensure that the mining companies genuinely make jobs available first to qualified Australians, and that workers from overseas are not used as a source of cheap labour.

But once again, getting there was a struggle, and the Prime Minister wasn’t able to properly articulate and argue a volatile policy issue because of poor implementation and internal politics.

Yet despite all that, opinion polls show that the Government is doing quite well on key issues like the NBN, aged care, private health insurance and the mining tax. Even with the carbon tax, there is some encouragement for the Government depending on how the issue is presented to the voter.

As polling expert Andrew Catsaras put it on Insiders this week, the worst thing that can happen for the Coalition is to believe it can’t lose the next election, and the worst thing that can happen for the Government is to believe it can’t win.

And the “edge” that the Government has in those key policy areas does sustain many of the government MPs, for now.

That and the surprising improvement in Newspoll in the past month.

Politicians say parrot-like that an election is the only poll that counts, but this week we saw how one opinion poll can have a significant impact on the political atmospherics, in the media as well as in the parliamentary chambers. The new mood was so transparent you could photograph it.

The mood change happened because a month ago, according to Newspoll, the primary vote gap between the two major parties was 24 points (51 per cent to 27 per cent.) Now it’s 14 points (46 per cent to 32 per cent.) Likewise with the two party preferred vote; a month ago the gap was 18 points (59 per cent to 41 per cent), now it’s 8 points (54 per cent to 46 per cent).

The new figures immediately took some of the pressure off Julia Gillard and caused some introspection on the part of the Coalition about their aggressiveness.

Tony Abbott uncharacteristically at a doorstop interview even tried to deflect attention from Newspoll, a poll that has served him so well, by referring the media to other polls out this week that were not as encouraging for Labor.

The situation, nevertheless, is still grim for Labor. The figures defy political history. Traditionally, governments – the incumbents – have an advantage, particularly when the economy is strong, and sometimes even when it is not. Right now, it is apparently anything but the economy, in the minds of the electorate.

Even with the three key indicators – unemployment, official interest rates and inflation – all below 5 per cent (and that hasn’t happened for 40 years) Labor still trails badly.

Worse for Labor, they face an 8 per cent deficit in the polls even though Tony Abbott has a disapproval rating of 60 per cent and threatens to be the most unpopular opposition leader ever to be elevated to the prime ministership.

But as Abbott warned his party room this week, Gillard will not give up without a fight, in spite of all the difficulties inherent in a minority government.

The election could be 15 to 18 months away, and the Government is at 46 per cent two-party preferred.

In 1993, Paul Keating’s government was at 46.5 per cent just five weeks out from an election and won. In 2001, John Howard’s government was at 56.5 per cent five weeks out and polled just 51 per cent at the election. In 2004, the Howard government was at 47.5 per cent three weeks out and won. In 2010, Julia Gillard’s government was at 52 per cent three weeks out and just fell in on the day.

Big late swings can and have happened, and the electorate has never been more volatile and less rusted on to the major parties as it is now.

The Coalition has a big lead and for all we know the electorate may have stopped listening to Julia Gillard and her government.

But on the other hand, despite the hubris at some levels in the Coalition, and the constant references to state elections in NSW and Queensland, Tony Abbott is no Campbell Newman. The entire state of Queensland was interested in Newman and ultimately ready to embrace him. That is true of Abbott in only parts of Australia.

There is a long way to go and lots of issues and events yet to be traversed. Both sides would be well served heeding Andrew Catsaras’ advice. The Coalition should avoid over confidence, and the Labor Party, despondency.

Barrie Cassidy is the presenter of ABC programs Insiders and Offsiders. View his full profile here.

Topics:federal-parliament, federal-government

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