There's no time for PM to bask in her ray of sunshine
Sometimes you get lucky in politics and, after months of misery, Julia Gillard is enjoying a dose of good fortune. Whether it lasts remains to be seen but, suddenly, the Prime Minister appears to be building momentum and, finally, her opponent is under pressure.
Sometimes you get lucky in politics and, after months of misery, Julia Gillard is enjoying a dose of good fortune. Whether it lasts remains to be seen but, suddenly, the Prime Minister appears to be building momentum and, finally, her opponent is under pressure. Sometimes you get lucky in politics and, after months of misery, Julia Gillard is enjoying a dose of good fortune. Whether it lasts remains to be seen but, suddenly, the Prime Minister appears to be building momentum and, finally, her opponent is under pressure.Gillard is lucky that a modest recovery in the polls this week received more attention frankly than it deserved. She is lucky that Tony Abbott went AWOL when the carbon tax became law. And she is lucky that the Qantas dispute became a plus for Labor when it could so easily have been a minus. Most of all, she is lucky that all this good fortune coincided with her best month as PM, and, arguably, Tony Abbott's worst month as Opposition Leader.This is Gillard's designated year of ''decision and delivery'' and, as it draws to a close, she is poised to tick off two of the three nominated priorities - the price on carbon and the mining tax - and can point to some significant achievements in other areas.At the same time, Abbott's just-say-no approach has passed its use-by date and is beginning to reek, and tension is emerging in the Coalition over his style, judgment and direction.Whether this period becomes a watershed or a waterfall for Gillard and Abbott depends on what comes next.Will Gillard take the cue from Paul Keating and offer the electorate a story that makes sense of what she has done and what she intends to do - and will her colleagues lose patience if the poll numbers remain uncompetitive early next year?And will Abbott show he has his own Plan B, after the strategy of forcing Labor to an early poll through relentless negativity failed to deliver? And how will he propose to unscramble an omelet that includes the carbon tax, the mining tax and some form of pre-commitment on high-end poker machines?What is clear from the polls, aside from the fact that Gillard and Abbott are deeply unpopular leaders, is that neither the Coalition nor the Greens (despite their triumphalism this week) have capitalised on Labor's woes. Both have a primary vote that is roughly where it was at the last election.The impression is that a sizeable Labor vote is parked elsewhere and Keating has suggested a storyline to get it back - one that paints Labor as the party that has managed the great transformations in Australian history, from the postwar migration program to the modernisation of the economy.Now, with the rise of China representing perhaps the greatest transformation of all, the challenge is to persuade the electorate that everything from pricing carbon to extracting a dividend from the mining boom is part of the same transformation story. If that story links distinctly Labor legacies, such as increased superannuation, to policy responses it may be possible to counter another negative - the perception that the Greens are calling the shots.The problem, of course, is that Labor's problems go deeper than the lack of a big-picture vision. Much deeper. For a start, as one MP expressed it: ''We've got New South Wales spooked by pokies and Victoria shitty about asylum seekers.'' Or, as another insider put it: ''We're not trying to get the dreamers. We're trying to get our own people back.''The deadline for tackling problem gambling is May, and coming up with a plan that satisfies Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie should not, in the end, be too difficult. Dealing with unauthorised boat arrivals is more urgent and much more complex - and there are fewer grounds for confidence.The challenge is to address the crisis inside the detention network that is reflected in the shocking statistics on self-harm and to slow the number of boat arrivals. While Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is working on the former, there is little evidence of new thinking on the latter after the Malaysian people swap was scuttled, first by the High Court and then by Abbott.Abbott may yet pay a price for denying the government the ability to implement its policy, but why isn't Bowen seeking to re-energise a regional approach by trying to extend the same give-and-take principle that underpinned the Malaysian deal? Why, for instance, isn't he exploring the potential to take more refugees from Indonesia in return for that country agreeing to intensify its efforts to stop people smugglers?Why is he pushing retrospective changes to our people-smuggling laws that will punish poor Indonesian fishermen, many of them boys, who crew boats carrying asylum seekers, when this does nothing to ''smash the people smugglers' business model''?Then there is industrial relations, where Gillard's challenge is to demonstrate that Labor's system is fair to both sides and not a recipe for continuing uncertainty and dislocation.Gillard was seen to be decisive because Qantas, having alienated its customers, was slow to explain why it took the pre-emptive action of grounding its entire fleet. A persuasive case can be mounted, however, that the airline took the course that was most likely to result in industrial action being terminated, rather than simply suspended. If the government had been more proactive, it may not have come to this.Abbott, meanwhile, is antagonising business because he won't say what his industrial relations policy will be, and frustrating colleagues and supporters who think it's time to change gear and become more positive.His decision to keep the superannuation increases to be funded by the mining tax, while pledging to abolish the tax, was baffling on two counts - because of the failure to consult finance spokesman Andrew Robb, and because, of all the potential retreats, this was one of the least likely or pressing.Assuming the mining tax goes through Parliament, there will also be disquiet from Coalition MPs, especially in non-mining states, who can't understand the logic of opposing the proposition that the riches of the boom should be shared.It is utterly premature, of course, to call a trend back to Labor in the polls, or to predict leadership tension within the Coalition, but there is an imperative for the leaders of both major parties.For Gillard, it is to craft a narrative to replace the seemingly unrelated jumble of activity, and to deliver it with conviction. For Abbott, it is to create a new story, one that is more about what he will do than what he will stop. The old story wreaked havoc with his opponent for a long, long time, but it has run its race.Michael Gordon is national editor.Shaun Carney is on leave.