Federal Politics

Team Abbott sitting pretty but must get out into policy marketplace

It doesn't get much easier for an opposition when it starts getting asked such questions as this: ''Mr Hockey, will you ever get a better position in opposition than $1.50 a litre in petrol and detention centres burning?''

The shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey had bobbed up on Wednesday to attack the government over inflation which, due largely to the natural disasters over the summer, had spiked for the March quarter above 3 per cent. While that was Hockey's main moment for the week, Tony Abbott's entire schedule was dictated by government misery.

His tour of fear began in Christmas Island to exploit the impotence of the government over asylum seekers. It moved to Whyalla to reinforce negative perceptions about the carbon tax and add pepper to local union claims that the steel city would be wiped off the map.

From there, Abbott went to Alice Springs to highlight his own special interest in Aboriginal disadvantage and hang a lantern over the government's lack of progress in doing anything about it.

Abbott is spoilt for choice at the moment such are the many battles that the government is fighting. Wherever he goes there is a ready-made backdrop for him to criticise the government.

The government's problems are exacerbated by what some MPs report is a nasty, personal dislike in their electorates of Julia Gillard. Her clothes, her nose, her gender, even her boyfriend are all considered fair game.


If they don't like you in politics, everything is a problem but the personal nastiness against Gillard is something new, one MP told this column.

No one in government is naive about how dire the present situation is, least of all the Prime Minister. In recent days, Gillard has told those around her that the next four months will be the toughest yet but, if Labor comes through, it will be the stronger for it.

It is consistent with her initial approach after the election that only policy delivery over the long term will turn things around for Labor.

That four-month period for which she is girding her charges starts with next week's federal budget, which we keep being told is going to be ''tough'', and then encompasses the legislation for the mining tax, and release of details of the carbon tax.

Bear in mind the government is already at odds with industry, big business, mining, the clubs and hotels and others. Gillard and her ministers are anticipating more enemies after the budget.

For example, the private health insurance lobby is sitting on ''research'' about premium prices, which it will use to scare the pants off people when the budget again tries to means test private cover.

Against all this, one would think everyone in the Coalition would be happy, especially as the opposition is sitting on a 47 per cent primary vote while the government is as popular as carp.

But in recent weeks, some frustrations have emerged. Common complaints concern a lack of policy and that the public espousal of ideas is not being encouraged.

People point to Hockey's recent effort in which he promoted the same tax rate for income, trusts and companies. He was jumped on internally for suggesting trusts be taxed and backed away rapidly. Hockey was trying to spark a wider conversation about equitable tax rates across the board to avoid tax avoidance and lower income taxes.

At the end of last year, Abbott acknowledged fear alone would not win him the next election and he set up a policy development process using the Liberal think-tank, the Menzies Research Centre, with the aim of having ideas ready to roll from the end of this year.

In addition, Abbott has wheeled out a few nuggets himself in recent weeks, most notably further ideas for welfare reform and more spending on mental health. While welcomed, these were seen predominantly as spoilers for the budget which will contain comprehensive measures in both areas.

Abbott's budget-in-reply next week is also expected to contain a policy proposal, possibly in tax reform.

Despite this, some Liberals believe the party should be doing more now to exploit the government's position.

''This mob is so bad, there's a big void out there for a couple of ideas,'' said one.

Labor, he said, could not possibly have such a bad election campaign a second time around so hoping the government just falls over is not enough.

This view, however, is still the minority.

Remember how fragile the Coalition looked just two months ago when it was riven by internal fights over policy direction?

Gillard's announcement of the carbon tax was the circuit-breaker to all that.

So, while the government struggles, petrol is $1.50 a litre and detention centres burn, there is no point making yourself a distraction.

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