Parliament resumes, and politicians are in a desert flogging a horse with no shame

Eyes firmly on 2016: Treasurer Joe Hockey. Photo: Andrew MearesAustralian politics: full coverageThe Pulse Live with Judith Ireland

Suspension of disbelief is an oft-used tool in national politics. Which is why no one flinched in question time on Tuesday as Labor branded a Medicare co-payment, floated by federal Health Minister Peter Dutton to contain costs, as ”the proposed GP tax”.

A potentially worthy policy idea converted into a certainty and reduced to a powerful negative slogan. Who knew? For Labor, it was a soda. Easy money. Politics 101 with the arsenic tang of payback thrown in.

Cue the pantomime acting on the government side as frontbenchers’ heads rolled back in mock incredulity, flabbergasted at such an unworthy suggestion.

”Here comes a big Labor scare,” Treasurer Joe Hockey interjected, his tone part exasperation, part professional admiration.

There was no hint of shame either from a governing party that had ridden to power substantially on the mother of all scare campaigns, ”Labor’s great big new tax on everything”.

As Parliament resumed for only its second week this year, and notwithstanding a reversal of roles, one could be forgiven for thinking time had somehow doubled back on itself.

Even the themes were perennial, including health spending cuts and the ever-reliable CTs: Craig Thomson and the carbon tax.

Thomson’s conviction last week proved irresistible – especially for a government yet to fully cast off its opposition mentality and already struggling to propose actual legislation for debate.

In a thorough debasement of previous historic gestures (think the stolen generations, British migrant children, victims of forced adoptions), the so-called conservatives used their numbers to issue a parliamentary apology to Health Services Union members and officials ripped off by their erstwhile national boss, the aforementioned Thomson.

It was a stunt.

That HSU members are owed an apology is undoubted. That Labor has to carry much of the blame for Thomson and his ongoing protection is also beyond question. But an apology from the peoples’ house? Rubbish. In fact, Thomson’s lies to the Parliament had made it a victim of his deceit also.

Previous apologies recognised the harm done by past policies. They were magnificent weighty gestures, valued both for their sincerity and their rarity. This, by contrast, was motivated by political immaturity and vanity. Its architects should themselves apologise.

Then there’s the carbon tax. As the government showed, there’s a yelp in that mangy old dog yet, if you kick it hard enough. This one will be kicked firmly from here to July.

Labor’s approach this term owes a lot to the successful model of high-impact oppositionism pioneered by Tony Abbott between 2010 and 2013. As one adviser said: ”We’re now gonna give them what they gave us – nothing.”

Unsurprisingly, however, this is no two-way street. Abbott and Hockey were students of politics through the Labor years too. But what they gleaned from watching Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard was what not to do.

Specifically, it involved not chasing popularity.

Polls over the past few months have made for difficult reading for Coalition loyalists. Just this week Newspoll put two-party-preferred support for Labor well ahead of the the Coalition on 54-46. How could Abbott and company have lost ground so quickly to a party loathed by voters and regarded as so shambolic in power so recently?

It is a good question, but if you think Abbott and Hockey are asking it, you are wrong.

Both have told their charges to hold their nerve, warning that government is always a tough business and never more so than now. There are no short cuts.

Indeed, Hockey has gone further, privately telling colleagues he wouldn’t mind if the government was trailing by 10 points at the close of this year or even later.

His eyes are firmly on 2016. He wants to go to that election with a swag of hard decisions already taken and the credible claim of progress towards a balanced budget.

May’s budget will thus invite the negative announcement impact of many of those decisions – even if the plan is to delay the cuts themselves until the out-years of the four-year cycle.

It will be a difficult balancing act compounded by election 2013 promises to quarantine health, education, defence, aged pensions – in short, all the big-ticket items on the cost side of the budget – while introducing no new taxes and abolishing others.

Abbott gave an indication of that difficulty on Monday when he said education would not face cuts but the rate of growth in education spending would be curbed.

In ordinary speak, that’s a cut. And voters are less inclined to suspend disbelief.

Mark Kenny is the chief political correspondent.

Paul Sheehan is on leave.

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