Tomorrow the political year of 2011 officially begins.
Of course it has actually been going for month at least – the QLD floods brought out the politicians from their summer’s rests much earlier than usual. And in some ways tomorrow really won’t be the start because there will be no Question Time (and we all know the nation hangs on that 90 minutes of fun – and yes I know, I do, but I have a problem and I admit it, what’s your excuse?), but will instead have condolence motions for the flood and cyclone victims.
The two leader’s condolence speeches will be quite interesting to observe. The last time there was such a day of condolence it was for the Victorian Bushfires, and the two main speakers were Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull. Kevin Rudd you may recall was absent as he was in Melbourne assisting with the fire recovery (the fires occurred on 7 February, so Parliament was already sitting). Gillard that day gave a beautiful speech. You can listen to it here.
She was very emotional, and for much of it was struggling to get through without her voice cracking – often she failed. Turnbull as well gave an excellent speech, and many members of the House were weeping.
Tomorrow will be a different emotion for many members. This is not because the deaths from the floods (and the one during the cyclone) are less tragic, but more because the fires happened only 3 days before the House gave its condolence and so the pain was still very raw – no time had passed yet to heal.
For Gillard of course, it was also a case of the tragedy occurring much closer to home. I think that people who have lived only in the south have a much more visceral fear of bushfires because it returns every summer; cyclones and even flooding as was seen in the Lockyer Valley is perhaps just too foreign to comprehend the horror. It certainly was for me growing up in South Australia. Floods and cyclones? Cyclone Tracy and the Brisbane floods happened when I was 2, whereas the Ash Wednesday fires happened when I was 10 , and I still remember the heat of that day.
It’s why I think Today Tonight and news.com.au had a countdown clock running for when Cyclone Yasi crossed the coast – as though its crossing the coast actually meant anything, as though the 3-4 hours before the cyclone crossed the coast weren’t the most gravely dangerous times, as though the 2-3 hours after it crossed the coast weren’t also full of fear and venom. You’d never see such a meaningless thing being done during a bushfire.
So tomorrow I think there will be emotion, but not that cut-to-the-bone emotion that we witnessed on 9 February 2009. There will be those MPs from Queensland who will of course be full of grief, but it will be grief that has at least had some weeks to work through.
It will also be interesting to to see how both Gillard’s and Abbott’s speeches are reported. Back in February 2009 Gillard was covered in tributes for her heartfelt speech. The tone of political coverage has changed so much that she could probably cry tomorrow in her speech and the analysis will be why didn't she cry two weeks ago? (oh and did you see what she was wearing??).
For Tony Abbott it will be a chance for him to show he can give a speech absent of political inference. Will he go to the cost of rebuilding and the levy (will Gillard?)? Will he spend more time praising the decisions of Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1970s than the response by the Anna Bligh two weeks ago?
But as the new political year is ready to start, let’s have a quick look at how things have changed in 12 months.
Twelve months ago before the first sitting day I wrote:
The parliamentary year started as it often does with a Newspoll. It was not great news for the ALP. On the two party preferred the ALP was only leading by 52-48 (pretty much on par with the last election). Of note however was that the ALP’s primary vote was now behind the LNP’s 40% to 41%.
What we have is a pretty divided electorate. We also have some figures that show that Rudd has been off the playing field for most of the summer and needs to get back into gear quickly. His appearance on last Friday’s Sunrise program was lack lustre, so he’s going to need to improve to reconnect with the public (or at least some of the 38% who don’t approve with what he is currently doing).
Well this year it starts with a Newspoll and it’s now LNP 52 – ALP 48, and even worse for the ALP , the Primary is now 32, and the LNP’s in 44.
Here’s the Newpoll for the past 12 months:
Not great news for the ALP that’s for sure.
Gillard wasn’t there 12 months ago, so let’s look how Abbott is doing as preferred PM in that time
So he’s doing better than he is was back then. There has been murmurings about his position, and this is mostly because the LNP is now ahead of the ALP, but Abbott lags behind Gillard. And when such a thing occurs, opposition leaders always get a little bit antsy, because back benchers start thinking they should be further ahead, and because they think the Preferred PM actually matters (it does, but you only need to see how Keneally has polled compared to the NSW ALP, to see it doesn't matter that much). But Abbott isn’t actually travelling very well at the moment. His performance on Insiders last night wasn’t flash – take his opening lines:
BARRIE CASSIDY: On the flood levy, one thing we seem to have learned from this, that is; in times of crisis, while Australians pull together, politicians rarely do.
TONY ABBOTT: Well look there are all sorts of lessons from this. But I don't want to be part of a higher-taxing political party.
And the Government unfortunately is addicted to taxes. And it's addicted to spending, often wasteful spending.
And I think I've set a very clear contrast between a Government whose first instinct is to tax and an Opposition which thinks that governments, like households, like businesses, should live within their means.
Boom – straight into his focus group spiel. He may think the government is addicted to spending, but he’s certainly addicted to spin. Take his response to another Cassidy question:
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay. The gun levy - what's the difference between that and this?
TONY ABBOTT: Well this is a Government which can't be trusted to spend money wisely which means that it's all the more important for the Government to reorder its priorities and to find savings.
The Prime Minister herself admitted at the Press Club that there were further savings that could be found. And that's where the Government should be looking, to the fat in the budget, to meet reconstruction costs.
Now there is dodging the question, and then there’s Tony Abbott –Mister “Straight Talker” (yeah, right).
But bugger the polls (as Annabel Crabb quite rightly says we should), let’s look at the real world over the past 12 months. First unemployment:
Looking good, hard to complain. Now inflation:
Hard to fault. Interest rates?
This is less great – depending on how you look at things. Had the rates stayed low, you can bet the first graph on unemployment would not be looking half so good, so it is good that the rates went up. But in political terms, the ALP would not be wanting them to rise any higher – there’s only so long you can say interest rate rises are sign of a strong economy.
And so to the year ahead. Predictions? Yeah right, I’m that silly.
I will say one thing, the polls won’t really matter in my opinion until the budget (as it will also be a good period after the NSW election is out of the system). The political year will be interesting in the first half, but the real game begins when the Senate changes and the Greens get the balance of power.
The price on carbon is the biggie. Not only will it be the test of Gillard, it will also affect Abbott. It’s all very well for Libs to think Hockey (or Turnbull) could give them better numbers, but what happens when a price on carbon comes up for debate – I’m sure they all remember November 2009?
One other little aspect forgotten over the summer is the wikileaks. There are still a heap to come out, that have been held back because of the big news of the floods and cyclones, and also because it was the summer silly-season. We have no idea how embarrassing they will be for the government – though we can probably bet that Fairfax will time them for the biggest impact.
But, oh bugger it, here’s a prediction: Will Gillard and Abbott still be the leaders in December? I’ll bet one of them will be, but not both.