Labor needs to shut up about carbon

The government's carbon tax attack on Tony Abbott has been too successful, raising the daunting prospect of a 2013 showdown with Malcolm Turnbull.

The summer recess of parliament is almost upon us. There's just one more week of Capitol Hill biffo to go, before both sides limp to their respective beaches to tan and hazily dream of victory at next year's election.

Or at least that's the impression we'll get. There will, in fact, be feverish strategic planning behind the scenes and on Labor's side in particular, the full realisation that the carbon-tax-fightback that has been waged in past weeks has been a little too effective.

Yes, too effective.

The defining policy of this Labor government should have been something like the Fair Work Act, or the fiscal strictures imposed by its 2 per cent, then 2.5 per cent, efficiency dividend that is actually delivering one of the world's leaner public sectors (despite a lot of bluster in the media to the contrary).

But the good or ill effects of those policies are discussed a lot less that the carbon tax, and the catastrophic effect it had, until recently, on Labor's electoral prospects.

And it was clear to some commentators, months back, that Labor's long game was to allow the over-enthusiastic Tony Abbott to punch himself out on the issue, before stepping forward with a long list of Abbott quotes, and a growing list of actual data relating to the small impacts of that tax, then pummel him into oblivion.

But the strategy has worked too well, and serious leadership speculation grows in the media day by day. Abbott's approval rating is appallingly low and the two-party-preferred split is now hovering between the 50:50 Newspoll results, and a continuing election winning 53:47 according to the Essential Poll – the one that was closest to the actual voting patterns seen at the August 2010 election.

Malcolm Turnbull's assertion on the ABC's Q&A last night that "there's not going to be any change [in leader] on our side, certainly" was wonderfully convincing.

But then all 'reluctant' leaders make these kinds of statements before being dragged before voters to save their parties. Think how reluctant Julia Gillard was to tip-toe through the puddles of blood left by Labor Right-faction powerbrokers to sit in Kevin Rudd's still-warm prime-ministerial chair in the House of Reps.

"Oh very well," they all sigh when it's their turn. "I know I said I wouldn't, but if it's for the good of our nation's beloved people ..."

Turnbull slipped in this rather unambiguous line last night: "... while I won't be the leader of the Liberal Party, and certainly not the next Liberal prime minster, if the Liberal Party is elected to government next time, I will be part of collective leadership that is the Coalition cabinet".

I'm sure Tony Abbott will find little comfort in that line – "zip, zero and none", to use one of Rudd's colourful turns of phrase.

That's because in politics, numbers can't be argued away. If, in early 2013, there is a real prospect of a number of Liberal Party members losing their seats to a reinvigorated Labor Party, and thereby ceding power once again to Gillard, all the principled arguments in the world will be no match for the simple logic that in a Turnbull-Gillard election, the result would be resounding victory to the coalition.

Which is why the carbon-fight-back needs to be slowed. Labor needs to land its heaviest blows around budget time next year. While almost the entire commentariat seems to have been taken in by the 'Labor backtracks on surplus' line, I cannot agree – Swan, Wong and Gillard will do anything, including further painful spending cuts, to deliver a budget surplus next May.

Okay, so that surplus will be a temporary illusion – looking across forward estimates, 2012/13 is an aberrant dip in public spending, which takes off again the following year – but it is a simple, clean story to take Labor to an election around September.

So Labor will be rubbing Abbott's nose in the carbon poo, and clobbering him with the surplus, and it will be too late for his party to do anything about it.

That's why I expect one of the things we won't hear about from next week's Caucus meeting will be how Gillard stood up and told Labor MPs to have a quiet summer, work on the tan, and lay off that nice Mr Abbott for a while.

We will know more about this next week. Those with the time should study Labor's attacks in question time to see if a more muted approach is evident.

If it is not, and if Labor goes too hard, it risks making Abbott look unelectable in early 2013. And despite Turnbull's protestations to the contrary, his party would be left with absolutely no choice.

So it may be a quiet summer. But for some, the silence will be filled with menace.

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