Labor's fightback plan comes too late

China and Indonesia have given Labor room to fight on climate change and asylum seekers, respectively. But Labor's strategist John McTernan shouldn't get his hopes up.

Finally this week there are glimmers of strategy emerging from the beseiged Gillard government that might justify some of the expense of 457 visa worker John McTernan – Tony Blair’s communications guru, imported by the Gillard team to outmanoeuvre a Coalition running rings around Labor.

It might all be too late for the plucky Scot, of course, because if the apocryphal Rudd challenge to Gillard’s leadership takes place, McTernan will be on the next plane home. But then that story is starting to flag, with key Rudd backer Joel Fitzgibbon yesterday telling journalists, hungry for a tidbit, that “leadership is no longer an issue, it's all behind us”.

So what, if anything, is Labor getting right in its strategy for slowing Abbott down?

Firstly, the release of details of China’s first carbon pricing scheme came just at the right time for Labor.

Climate Change Minister Greg Combet was more strident than ever yesterday denouncing in question time the cost of the Coalition’s Direct Action carbon abatement policy, when China is pricing a tonne of carbon emissions at around $5 and the European price is around $6.60.

Despite Coalition counterattacks in parliament demanding that Labor cancel the July 1 rise in Australia’s carbon permit price (to $24 a tonne), Combet thundered back that after taking into account Labor’s complex system of industry specific subsidies, the effective carbon price for trade-exposed industries such as steel is around $1.30 a tonne.

The long-term principle underpinning an ETS is that finding and paying for carbon abatement offshore, as part of a globally linked system of emissions trading schemes, is by far the cheapest way to meet our climate change commitments.

In the long-term even Tony Abbott, who has been so successful in using the ‘carbon tax’ to score political points, cannot resist the economics of international carbon pricing – taxpayers just won’t want to stump up billions more from consolidated revenue to fund direct-action projects, when the Europeans and Chinese are doing it so much cheaper.

Labor has not been silent on carbon in past months, but the new vigour with which Combet and Prime Minister Julia Gillard have shown when answering carbon questions at the despatch box this week at least reveals the bones of a communications strategy – wait until the China scheme is up, and then give it all you’ve got.

It won’t be enough to neutralise Abbott’s ‘toxic tax’ campaign completely, but it does give Labor more solid ground from which to fight on this core issue.

The other strategic plank falling into place this week comes with the announcement of a top-level mission to Indonesia by Gillard to discuss the refugee issue with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Gillard’s conversation with the president will go something like this.

Gillard: 'Would you like us to send boatloads of refugees back to your shores?'

Yudhoyono: 'No. Sorry. We just can’t have that.'

Whereupon a shocked Gillard will emerge from the talks to tell Australians that that nice Mr Abbott has made a mistake, and won’t be sending boats back to Indonesia in the way shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison has promised.

The Indonesians endured tow-backs during the Howard government, but have made it clear in past months that that option is over.

Labor has been utterly crucified in this term of government on the ‘carbon tax’ and ‘boats’, and will now look forward to two months of campaigning with robust evidence that there are no better policies for tackling these issues being offered from the other side of the chamber.

It ain’t much of a strategy really, but at least it’s something for McTernan to jot down on his 457 visa paperwork – proof that he was actually working here after all.

Whether that will prompt the immigration department to issue another visa to allow him to work for radio 2GB – as he reportedly wishes to do when Labor’s been all but annihilated on his watch – is another matter. 

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