When they speak privately and realistically, few cabinet ministers give their government a chance of winning the September 14 election.
But late last week, for the first time in many months, they watched opposition leader Tony Abbott make what Labor cabinet members see as two mistakes in 24 hours. Accordingly it raised government morale and Labor hopes of avoiding a complete bloodbath at the election.
Tony Abbott has been a superb opposition leader but now the government thinks it might be able to force him into more errors.
Neither of Abbott’s mistakes will cost him the election but they showed uncharacteristic carelessness, which may indicate he is tiring or becoming over confident – or at least that’s how the Labor optimists see it.
Remember Abbott and the Coalition are way in front so they don’t have to take big risks in areas that are not essential policy.
The first ‘mistake’ was in superannuation. To determine its superannuation policy, Labor had an incredibly bruising cabinet meeting. It had to be a tough encounter because Treasury - who normally would be expected to lead the debate - was peddling incorrect figures and was not contributing useful policy ideas.
In the end cabinet had to use figures that matched Business Spectator's to establish policy. It was a very dangerous cabinet meeting and could so easily have been a complete disaster for superannuation and the nation.
The Tony Abbott we have seen so often in the past year would have responded that the coalition aimed to remove the new tax but feared the government was in such a mess that it would be hard work. Then when the budget was on the table and the election was closer Abbott could make up his mind. And he would have the benefit of gauging community reaction.
But it was the old Abbott who jumped in and opposed the relatively minor tax change leaving himself open to be attacked that he is protecting the rich and attacking the poor. He could have defended his position, but did not need to be exposed.
Mistake number two was trying to decide from the federal opposition bench whether Victoria needed federal money for a toll road to connect the eastern suburbs with the Tullamarine freeway rather than an improvement in the rail network. You don’t have to make those calls in opposition. So suddenly its cars against public transport and you are caught in a debate that you don’t need to have. Frankly state governments should make these sorts of decisions not federal governments.
No doubt the Coalition PR machine will sort out both mistakes and they are nowhere near fatal, but at least it lifted the Labor camp’s spirits. And in political terms September 14, 2013 is an eternity away so lots can happen.