With election looming, leaders pull on gloves
Tony Abbott at the Davidson Rural Fire Brigade where he volunteers. Photo: James Brickwood
As the nation shrugs off the summer daze and faces another year of work, is it too much to ask for political leaders to clean up their act?
Even though climate change and economic management will remain fundamental points of difference, putting the national interest first should mean a more productive year that puts antagonism and ugly brawling last.
Fat chance of that. And, even if they did make such a promise, who would believe them?
Our federal politicians have collectively debased their trade in the past year, leaving them with an uphill battle to even capture voters' attention, much less change hearts and minds.
Despite this trashing, both sides will concentrate their efforts on the small proportion of swinging voters in each electorate who will decide the outcome. But are they wasting their time campaigning at the moment, with many people still at the beach and those at home casting forward to the Australia Day long weekend?
We don't need a pollie to tell us Australia experienced its hottest day just a few weeks ago. Whether you were at the coast or in regional and rural Australia, you were sweltering.
A new Australian average daily temperature record was set on January 7, but was broken the next day. That makes January 7 and 8 Australia's hottest two-day period on record.
The Bureau of Meteorology says the recent trend of warmer than average sea surface temperatures surrounding Australia also continued during 2012, making it the sixth equal warmest on record. But is this due to climate change or just "freak" weather conditions?
In Hobart this week more than 250 scientists from the United Nations' chief science body discussed the science of global warming before their fifth paper later this year.
Scientific opinion is that the Earth's climate is unequivocally warming, but what's driving it? A small but vocal number of scientists dispute that humans are causing the warming by increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as by burning fossil fuels and deforestation.
The present heat around the nation is illustrating the diametrical points of view of the major political parties on the issue.
Nationals leader Warren Truss says linking "one hot spell to climate change" is too simplistic because Australia's climate is changeable. Yet the Bureau of Meteorology says the heat wave - in terms of its duration, intensity and extent - is unprecedented in its records.
When the PM toured fire-affected areas of Tasmania, she linked extreme weather events to climate change. ''While you would not put any one event down to climate change … we do know that over time as a result of climate change, we are going to see more extreme weather events."
In this election year Tony Abbott has to manage tensions inside the Coalition sparked by climate change sceptics as he pursues his "direct action" policy. But even the hard-line conservatives are pleased with his merciless pursuit of Gillard over her broken promise on the carbon tax.
It is the gift that keeps on giving because it goes to trust and credibility.
The Liberal Party website offers a ringtone featuring a grab of Gillard declaring there would be no carbon tax, set to the tune of the Coalition's campaign slogan, "Hope, Reward and Opportunity".
The Coalition's campaign on trust and economic management is being fuelled by Gillard dumping the promise of a budget surplus this financial year.
If this all sounds familiar, then consider this difference - Gillard and Abbott do face another exhausting of non-stop campaigning but it will be conducted at a more furious pitch because it's an election year and will end with one of them being shown the door.
The current money is on Abbott to win but Labor MPs are taking heart from the year's first national poll which shows an improvement of six percentage points in the government's support.
The Coalition's primary vote fell two points to 44 per cent, leaving the opposition with a small (but election-winning) lead on a two-party preferred basis, 51 to 49 per cent.
While ministers profess to ignore the polls, staffers at the ALP bunker suggest the revival is apodictic evidence of Abbott being on the nose with voters. Speaking notes going out to Team Gillard say it is clear Abbott's "negativity and fear mongering" have been rejected.
Labor MPs might also like to recall that when the PM goes on leave over summer, and politics takes a back seat, the government's stocks generally improve.
With the political year beginning to crank up, Gillard is flagging action to deal with violence in suburban Australia and to improve cyber safety as her initial election year offerings.
The Prime Minister will be out and about next weekend when Australia Day is traditionally marked not only by barbecues but by pollies being seen at naturalisation ceremonies.
The long weekend gives Gillard the springboard for a wide-ranging speech about her vision for the nation's future.
In recent media interviews she has emphasised the merits of big spending programs such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Both leaders have booked themselves a platform for an address to the nation. Gillard will appear at the National Press Club on January 30 followed by Abbott the next day.
Both will formally declare open their election-year race.
The Coalition says its policies are ready to go, and will go on high election alert after the May 14 budget.
Abbott's campaign themes, echoed by the party's slogan, are finely tuned to what he believes are the principal grumbles in the electorate, such as job security.
When the latest unemployment figures were issued, his slant was that the rise in the jobless rate was linked to the broken promise on the surplus. "I share the concerns of workers right around Australia that their jobs are less secure than they were," he said.
"This is a government which has failed its own economic test … On no fewer than 200 separate occasions, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have promised a budget surplus. It is not going to happen. They have failed their own test of economic management and that's why we are getting the kind of economic weakness which we're currently seeing."
He again put the economy as the centrepiece of the Coalition's election strategy. "In the end it all comes down to the economy."
But does Abbott, the seasoned political brawler, believe it is important to take ''personality'' out of the election debate?
Well, his mantra is the PM is untrustworthy and incompetent. And any good politician is good at turning an issue on its head. Therefore he replied: "As far as I'm concerned, we have always been focusing on the issues and I think every time the government resorts to personality politics … [and] the relentless negativity that we have seen from them, it just shows that they have no positive plans for the future of our country."
The podium at the Press Club awaits.