Can Gillard break the cycle?

It's not too late for Labor to rise above the media fray of party-room shenanigans and leadership speculation this year, despite the challenges of minority government.

It looks like another excruciating and discordant year ahead in domestic politics – 2011 writ large all over again.

The portents are already there: Julia Gillard still struggling to find her feet, literally; Tony Abbott still banging on stupidly about boats; and the cringing spectacle of a senior minister parroting lines from a Hollywood movie to try and rattle the Opposition.

Even Australia Day was thrown out of kilter because of a single, stupid phone call from the prime minister’s office to a union official about a not-unreasonable observation from Tony Abbott about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. It became a messy spectacle that not only stirred up old animosities, but pointed a finger about how politics is played these days in our country.

And all that’s with Kevin Rudd and Newspoll still on summer vacation!

It’s clear that the focus in Canberra will be job self-preservation. Gillard will be fighting an avalanche of negative polls and a press pack determined to write just one omnipresent story – how can Gillard survive in the job as she leads the government to extinction?

Over the holiday break she shored up support from nervous NSW and Queensland MPs hit by the club industry over poker machine reform. But for every MP she kept on side she lost tens of thousands of voters who judged the decision as another spineless capitulation to business prepared to spend money and lobby. She looked and sounded like a just another politician in panicky self-preservation mode.

This coming weekend she meets with colleagues armed with butcher's paper and textas to plan the year ahead. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? It’s got strong leadership and conviction written all over it.

And a few weeks later, the value of the Labor brand will be played out in the starkest way as voters go to the polls in Queensland, armed with a baseball bat. Who could blame them? It’s been almost 15 years.

Gillard will not campaign in Queensland, other than attend a formal launch. Kevin Rudd will put in occasional smiling, upbeat appearances, just to keep in the news. Tony Abbott will float about happily donning fluorescent vests, budgie smugglers and hard hats, saying just one word: Labor.

What’s also certain in 2012 is that our national parliament will continue as a rotting hole for invective, petty politics and useless point-scoring. Question Time will be farcical. Peter Slipper as Speaker will be a lightning rod.

Of course, the Gillard government does have a strong message to sell – it’s the economy, stupid! But it will not succeed because of the nature of political reporting these days out of Canberra.

It’s all about polls, personal misdeeds, party-room shenanigans, rumour and speculation about leadership – and trying to "win” the incessant and omnipresent news cycle.

The government pleads that it has to deal with the political reality of a hung – or almost hung – parliament and points to the impressive legislation it has passed including the historic price on carbon.

But it’s that very reality that Gillard has not seized by eyeballing the Greens and Independents. For a small example, she should have decided on a policy around poker machine misery and put it to the parliament in stark, raw and best-practice form. It should have been public policy recommended by the Productivity Commission.

Yes, it may have been voted down. But she could point directly to the Opposition and a couple of Independents as culprits. Instead she cowered, and copped the flak for weakness.

A minority government should not be a hiding hole for any prime minister. It should be an opportunity to rise above the daily partisan fray and show strength, character and leadership.

It’s still not too late, probably. It’s not too late for uncompromising tax reform, for slashing waste in the bloated Defence bureaucracy, for engagement with our region that does not acquiesce to the demands of the United States and for final decisions on national water policy.

What are the chances of business as usual in Canberra this year? You’d have to rate them as high to near certain.

A government that hides behind quivering backbench politicians scared of losing their superannuation or their jobs does not deserve to govern.

The alternative – well, that’s another great big new and important story of which we will hear very little as the weeks, months, polls and constant speculation about Gillard’s fate pass us by.

Alister Drysdale is a Business Spectator commentator and a former senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett.