The sound of grand plans cracking

As the nation turns away from it, Labor is sounding more and more like an opposition party. This shift will set the tone for the election campaign.

Wayne Swan cleared his throat, looked up and started reading. Thirty minutes later he was done with the explanations and rationale. A few “hear hears” were uttered in an echo. He had just delivered his sixth budget – not to the nation, but to his subdued colleagues on the front and back benches of parliament.

Exactly 48 hours later Tony Abbott – resplendent in sombre suit, and now-familiar and reassuring light blue tie – stared directly into the camera and personally addressed the nation.

It was understated – almost consciously, nervously wooden in its delivery – but its intent was clear: to lay out a sensible, prudent, non-threatening alternative economic plan to the budget “emergency” confronting the nation.

Above all, paint a picture of a cautious, restrained, responsible alternative to the “government in chaos”. He was greeted with an ovation from the visitor’s gallery and his beaming troops.

Abbott had succeeded with his political message, despite the commentary fine print arguing over his numbers and his capacity to meet his stated economic objectives. He had passed the test given him by those in the Canberra bubble.

He now only has to stay on his feet, keep his team on message about “debt” and chaos – and make sure the little things (like refusing a "pair" for a government MP seeking leave to be with a sick child) that resonate don’t keep popping up.

In politics, it’s always the minor gaffes that make the big stories and cost votes, not grand public policy debate.

And the central and unarguable reason Abbott has little more to do is that the nation – for better or worse – has stopped listening to Julia Gillard and her ministers.

In fact, the government is starting to sound more and more like a desperate Opposition. For instance, its scare on the GST doesn’t pass the smell test.

Of course it does have a big story to tell. We all know the achievements and the list of impressive economic numbers – reinforced post-budget by the ratings agencies.

But it’s been a gruelling two-and-a-half-year campaign since the Independents sided with Gillard and allowed her to form government, and the punters no longer care about the merits or demerits of many public policy issues. They just want it over.

Of course the prime minister tirelessly plugs on – from visiting PNG, to opening roads, to visiting schools and to introducing historic DisabilityCare legislation in a performance that displayed her character and values.

For the next four months the heat will intensify – not from Abbott, who will campaign as alternate PM, and not as Opposition leader.

It will come from Gillard who will be desperately seeking the ‘gotcha’ moments and the cheap headlines. It will be a re-run of Tony, circa 2011 and 2012.

Behind the scenes, both sides will be re-positioning. The Opposition will be looking hard at the big calls they will need to make within months of taking office, while the ALP will be looking to rebuild.

The revelations by Rob Burgess last Friday about the manoeuvrings of Bill Shorten over the ALP’s support for the carbon price was highly revealing (Is this the end for Labor’s ‘CarbonChoices’? May 17).

The outcome will say something about the DNA of that Party – is it a Party of genuine reform and social instinct, or is it just another middle-of-the-road do-nothing, do-anything mob of political operatives?

For Australians, the footy season is the front and centre issue as we seek our usual winter escape from life’s daily travails.

We’ve stopped reading the front pages and the editorials and head instinctively to the back. We’ll go back to the political news again on September 15 – when it’s all over and we can, finally, rest easy.