By way of background, a few words on how I view the relevant players.
I lost what regard I’d had for Howard during the Tampa standoff and the children overboard affair. His readiness to ruthlessly exploit vital issues for party political ends finished him for me. I could still recognise his skills as a politician but never again would he be someone I regarded as trustworthy. Costello, whatever his skills, has always irritated me and continues to do so. As for Downer, quite apart from disagreeing with much of his take on foreign policy, his voice and manner set my teeth on edge. Abbott, I confess I’m more inclined to like. He strikes me as a bit more human than his senior colleagues, less programmed, more unpredictable. Sometimes that may be a bad thing of course, but on balance it’s preferable to the perpetual politician I sense in the others.
Kevin Rudd, well, I want to like him. I was impressed with his start as leader and he is without doubt both clever and driven. He always seemed on top of his brief as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and speaks clearly and well. My comfort level was a touch shaken by the feature article in the Feb 10-11 Weekend Australian Magazine. Not only by five instances of the exact same smile staring out at me but more importantly by a slightly worrying sense of arrogance that came through. Anyway, it’s too early to tell so I’m happy to give him time and want him to succeed. If there’s one thing we desperately need, it’s a credible opposition.
So, on to the reason for this post. It’s a follow up to Labor’s Parliamentary Performance from a few days ago and has been prompted more by the comments on Tim Dunlops The Honourable Members (where he referred to that Troppo thread) than by those on Troppo itself which seem to have taken off on an oblique path after an fruitful initial burst. The strongest impressions from the Blogocracy comments are the palpable disgust most seem to feel about parliamentary antics and somewhat surprisingly, given that widespread distaste, their partisan nature.
I too of course have a bias. I’d like to see Labor getting the upper hand, for now at least, in order to restore balance and perhaps even produce a change in government. Or at least a shift in power in the Senate. I’m no rusted on Labor voter — indeed, anything but — but am convinced we need a change, a hosing out, if you like, of the Augean stables. While I think the odds are still pretty good, my initial impression of Labor’s performance, as voiced in the earlier post, has been reinforced in recent days. It’s been lamentable. I fully accept the comments made on Troppo and Blogocracy that the speaker is ludicrously biased and that the very format of Question Time entirely discourages anything resembling debate. Nevertheless, Labor has looked a very clear loser this week, not just because of these impediments but because of poor strategy and arguably even poorer execution. The arrogance often displayed by the government will hopefully count against them in the slightly bigger picture and I agree with those who think there can be very few who aren’t deathly tired of this sort of juvenile theatrics. Nevertheless, over the last few days the government has had the better of it. Labor’s sallies were half-hearted jabs that could be almost negligently brushed aside and most importantly, they failed entirely to occupy the high moral ground.
In attempting yesterday to turn the debate on the government by dredging up Crichton-Browne the opposition compounded the error they’d made the previous day in trying to make a meal of contacts between Walker and Howard et al. Tit for tat may, if effectively applied, neutralise an issue but it tends to drag the attacker down into the same gutter and, should the attack sputter, does so to no avail. That’s pretty much what happened. In leading with the Walker allegations on Wednesday, Labor was not only easily portrayed as playing conspiracy politics but, more damagingly, also laid themselves wide open to the charge that they weren’t willing or able to step up and have the difficult debate on what’s actually needed to stem CO2 emissions. Very close to an own goal, I would have thought. Faced then with the Burke accusations, they launched a rather weak counterattack which fizzled and left them looking no better than their accusers in moral terms, just a good deal less effective. I struggle to see how any of that can be spun into a win although the Exclusive Brethren business might turn out to have a few legs. I confess I’m astounded at Rudd’s foolishness in having three meetings with Burke. I’m not suggesting there was anything truly suspect but surely he ought to have been able to see the potential consequences? After all, as a number of posters on Blogocracy pointed out, Burke had been on the Labor banned list for a while.
Let me take just one more example from yesterday, the Roxon/Abbott debate on health. Here too the government emerged a clear winner. In so personalising her attack, Roxon undermined everything she said. Consider this tidbit:
Do you know why the minister really does not care about prevention? Probably because he has no sympathy for those who are suffering from diabetes, cardiovascular disease or other conditions. He does not worry about them. The minister is not worried for one second about the people who are suffering, because he is just rubbing his hands together and saying, “They will end up in state hospitals and I will stand up in the parliament and blame them.”
Even were this true it’s not good debating technique, at least nowhere outside primary school. However, I don’t think it is true and that came through in the tone of Abbott’s response. He answered with considerable dignity, accepted that many errors had been made and that much was not as he would wish it to be, parried the few rather pointless interjections well and finished with a touch of self-deprecating humour by saying:
I have tried as best I can to deal soberly and sensibly with the topic of this MPI. I am sorry if question time was a bit thermonuclear, but I think the serious critique has been well and truly answered. (Time expired)
Perhaps it’s just been a bad week and matters will take a turn for the better next time around. Still, given the rich selection of targets available and the fact that the government had been on the ropes, it’s an alarmingly inept performance. They’ve allowed the government back on the offensive, something that in the circumstances ought not to have been a realistic possibility.