Ah, 2003, The Good Old Days


In seven months time, give or take a few weeks, when Labor has claimed victory in the federal election, many in the party will look back and remember this last fortnight fondly as the time when things turned around.

Last week your correspondent wrote that Kevin Rudd had begun to wrestle back control of the political narrative. Rudd’s Mr Fixit, Greg Combet, has been installed to redo the insulation scheme. The National Curriculum has been rolled out. A federal quasi-takeover of health has been announced.

And then the news got even better for Labor and the strategy wonks didn’t have to lift a finger. On Monday, Tony Abbott announced a generous paid parental leave scheme that will tax — yes, tax! — big business and give stay-at-home mums (or dads) six months at home with the bub. Abbott offered much more time to prospective parents than the 18 weeks Labor put on the table with a plan that would cost $2.7 billion, making Labor’s $260 million plan look modest (and affordable).

For a moment there, life in Canberra went all topsy turvy.

Unions welcomed this new Coalition policy announcement. Rumblings from the business community were not gleeful in timbre. Bob Brown grinned as he observed that Abbott had managed to "out-green the Greens".

In Question Time a procession of shadow ministers got the opportunity to ask Labor when it was that they decided to abandon working families for the embrace of big business. Curiouser and curiouser.

When it emerged that Abbott had not consulted the full shadow cabinet before announcing his parental leave scheme, Labor MPs had a ball as they attacked the $2.7 billion "tax" as an Abbott "thought bubble". Did the relationship between Malcolm Turnbull’s failure to consult with his colleagues and his downfall escape comment? No, it did not.

In the back rooms of ALP HQ, the political strategists were rubbing their hands together with delight. From the moment Abbott took power, the Mark Latham comparison has been in circulation. Even during the early period of Abbott’s good polling numbers, Labor pundits promised that a "Latham Moment” was just around the corner for Abbott.

It was no accident, after all, that Michael Duffy wrote a biography of the pair during Latham’s leadership. And so far, the script for Abbott’s early leadership has been deliciously similar to that followed by Latham in his early days.

Abbott has had the PM on the back foot, as Latham had Howard — for a while. Ex-boxer Abbott hit the PM from the left with maternity leave, and from the right on immigration, confounding orthodox political strategy.

Just as Latham’s infamous "troops home from Iraq by Christmas” promise put some important allies offside, Abbott’s apparently extemporaneous paid parental leave scheme has knocked some noses out of joint, at least temporarily.

And like Latham, Abbott has a singular ability to cut through with a single line that plays well in the media and speaks to voters, particularly those in the key outer suburban battlegrounds where this election will be decided. But ominously for the Coalition, Abbott’s verbal dexterity and pugilistic approach to politics can get him in strife.

The political war of words over paid parental leave, healthcare, the structural separation of Telstra, the National Curriculum — and anything else you care to name — was interrupted for a day of statesmanship and ceremony when Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono came to Canberra. This provided the occasion for Labor to launch a new line of attack on Abbott.

An extraordinary press conference was called in Parliament House’s blue room on the day of Yudhoyono’s visit. Five senior ministers — Jenny Macklin, Stephen Conroy, Lindsay Tanner, Penny Wong and Nicola Roxon — stood up and charged the Leader of the Opposition with being the most "obstructionist Opposition Leader in living memory”.

It was a very clever move by Labor. Singling out the Coalition’s obstructionism turns the tables on Abbott whose robust approach has thus far been seen as a positive.

One by one the ministers stood before the cameras and outlined the legislation being delayed in their portfolios. Abbott should get out of the way, they argued, and let Labor get on with the business of governing.

Oppositions don’t get elected by being overly negative. Obstructionism aside, Abbott has more than once politicised occasions where it would have been more fitting to appear statesmanlike and bipartisan.

The first recent example was during his reply to the PM’s second annual "Closing the Gap" statement in Parliament. Abbott commended the Intervention on that occasion, reminding the House that it was a coalition policy, but then accused Labor of having gone soft on some measures, which is actually far from the truth.

The second glaring mis-step was taken just before Yudhoyono addressed Parliament on Wednesday when Abbott took a swipe at Rudd over the number of boats coming to Australian shores. Trying to score domestic political points during what was only the fifth speech by a foreign leader to a joint sitting of Parliament was petty.

By Thursday, Abbott looked like he was about to blink for the first time. Pressure building, he said the Opposition would look to amend, but would likely not oppose, the Government’s 18 week paid parental leave scheme. It’s a significant backdown and Labor strategists will be buying each other plenty of congratulatory beers this weekend as the backdown can be attributed directly to Wednesday’s outraged ministerial quintet.

That press conference did something much more significant than force Abbott to retract. It also laid the groundwork for a double dissolution election. Labor has had a double dissolution trigger since last year’s ETS debacle, of course, but you don’t pull the trigger lightly.

John Howard collected such triggers in each term he was in office. He never pulled the trigger because such a move can backfire. Typically, the "trigger” issue becomes secondary to other issues during the campaign. Even so, Labor will be wary of a double dissolution election because at this stage, the campaign would be fought on climate change.

Starting out by telling the people that Abbott opposes for opposition’s sake, however, and amassing a swag of trigger bills (all of which could be passed in a joint sitting at the end of this year), Rudd can mount a convincing argument that he has done all he can in his first term and that he needs a stronger mandate the second time around.

At the very least, the double dissolution threat is a very useful plan B. Rudd still isn’t likely to go to the polls in the first half of the year. In fact, an election does not have to be called until three years and three months after this Parliament first sat, which is May 2011. I don’t think we’ll have to wait that long.

But by continuing to collect triggers through the year, Labor could delay a double dissolution election until as late as October or November, giving Rudd three full years in office and giving Abbott more opportunities to roam off message. This may threaten the Coalition with electoral annihilation, particularly in the Senate, if Abbott continues with the current carry on.

Rudd and the ALP’s apparatchik army won’t make a decision on a double dissolution until later this year. And who knows, Abbott may adopt a more bipartisan, circumspect approach, unlikely as that seems.

Whatever the Government decides to do, it’s a reasonable bet that the message on Abbott will be simple. Rudd can take his cues from his predecessor, and ask one question, as Howard did of Latham:

"Can you trust him?”

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