It’s six months into the Abbott Government’s first term and there is a growing sense the Labor Opposition just hasn’t been able to lay a blow on the other side.
Apart from struggling to adjust to the uncomfortable but necessarily edifying transition from government to opposition, Labor has seemed singularly unable to capitalise on the panoply of stumbles, gaffes, backflips and dubious decisions that Abbott and his team have manifested in such a short time.
Granted, the ALP is laying claim to the shiny scalp of the sidelined Assistant Treasurer. But in reality, The Australian newspaper’s call for Arthur Sinodinos to stand aside likely had more impact on the Senator’s decision to do so than any of the edicts hurled at him in Parliament.
Without the intervention of Uncle Rupert’s paper, there’s a good chance Abbott would have attempted to ride out the controversy, just as he did when the Assistant Minister for Health, Fiona Nash, was accused of breaching the ministerial code. Abbott held tight, secure in the knowledge that Labor had enough dirt on its hands to be cautious when pointing out the Coalition’s misdemeanours.
The Nash episode was a clear-cut case of whether she did or did not breach the code or mislead the Senate. The Sinodinos matter was, however, anything but straightforward for Labor, with the Opposition having to tread a very fine line when accusing the junior minister of being naïve, foolish or dodgy while chair of Australian Water Holdings.
By implication, Labor risked lapsing into the claim that Sinodinos should have known better than to be even indirectly associated with Eddie Obeid, a mover and shaker in the NSW Labor Party who was later found to be corrupt by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
In short, saying that Sinodinos was dodgy for associating with a corrupt Labor politician is a bit like smacking oneself in the face.
Corruption in its own ranks is a significant limitation on the Labor Opposition’s capacity to credibly hold the Abbott Government to account on this issue, but it’s only one factor taking the edge off their attack.
Rorts in the union movement is another. The Government has a strategy to hobble the unions, cut off the flow of union funds to Labor, and reform wages and conditions, which spans across this parliamentary term and the next. Part of that strategy is to tarnish the reputation of unions and make Labor guilty by association.
Voters who pay attention to such issues would recall that PM Gillard vouched for the integrity of former Health Services Union head and Labor MP, Craig Thomson, who was subsequently found guilty of using his work credit card to pay for sexual services and make cash withdrawals.
One of the unstated aims of the Royal Commission into union corruption recently launched by the Abbott Government will be to ensure a broader range of voters associate Labor with unlawful activity within unions – regardless of whether that activity is sanctioned by the union in question.
This places Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, a former head of one the unions under investigation, in the invidious position of being seen to protect dodgy union activity whenever he defends the labour movement from what is patently a political witch-hunt. As a result, he keeps such protestations to a minimum and will be constrained in the assistance he can provide.
Similarly, Shorten limits his exhortations on the plight of asylum seekers, placed on Manus Island by way of an agreement struck by the re-ascended Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd to out-bid Abbott on “toughness” and win the anti-asylum seeker vote.
Even now the “toughness as a deterrent” tactic has devolved into terror, Labor’s role in bringing about the sorry situation has left them impotent and unable to fight for a more humane approach.
The ALP’s propensity to pull its punches may make sense within those politically sensitive contexts. But it makes Labor look like a weakling, particularly now that Australian voters have become accustomed to an opposition bristling with fight and negativity.
This is a particular problem for Shorten who has consciously rejected Abbott’s Mr No style and adopted an opposition leader model closer to that of Labor’s Kim Beazley (which itself was modeled on the Liberal, John Howard).
This model involves giving due recognition to sensible government decisions and eschews opposition for opposition’s sake. Inconveniently for Shorten, this moderate stance sits uncomfortably with his union leader past and could unintentionally suggest to voters that he’s not genuine. If that perception takes hold, it could create a whole new world of hurt for the opposition leader.
Labor can’t lay a punch on the Coalition because it is hopelessly implicated in some of the Government’s greatest sins and has shown no inclination to renounce that involvement.
This weakness is one of Abbott’s greatest strengths, and it may well be the key to his Government’s enduring political dominance in the foreseeable future.