The Labor government appears to have a spring in its step. After months of poor polls and difficulty passing legislation, things now seem to be going Labor’s way. In recent weeks, the government has been able to win some important battles and demonstrate its capacity to govern.
The start of the carbon tax on July 1 has played a role in Labor’s mini-reversal of fortunes. Prior to the implementation of the tax, the government was subject to constant questions about how it would impact society. Tony Abbott and the Coalition did their best to highlight their opposition to the tax and this clearly resonated with many voters. But now, with the carbon tax in its second month, these concerns may not have the same potency within the electorate.
With the carbon tax debate on the backburner, the government has been quick to identify other major policy issues it wants to address. The Houston Report gave it the opportunity to save face over asylum seeker policy but also try to get the debate off the front page of newspapers.
The Gonski Report into school funding and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) are shaping up to be the next issues the government wants to address. No doubt the government would be buoyed by its recent win over the tobacco industry. The introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes was heralded as a boon for public health. Moreover, it reinforced the sense within the government, and community, that Labor can actually govern.
While these debates have gone on in the public domain, the government has appeared to stem the tide in the opinion polls. Labor’s primary vote is up to 35% which is a significant improvement over the 28% it achieved in July. In two party preferred terms, Labor is up to 47% to the Coalition’s 53%. These results show that Labor would still lose if an election was held today, but there are signs of a recovery. More importantly for Gillard is that these results strengthen her hold on the prime ministership for the time being.
With Labor appearing to be re-energised, it has sought to tap into the gender divide for electoral support. While Gillard seems to be unpopular with men who have already decided who to vote for at the next election, there appears to be a large group of undecided women who the government is now chasing. Addressing important social policies is one way the government can get the attention of this cohort. Another way is by painting Tony Abbott as anti-women.
Indeed, in recent days several ministers have branded Abbott as a man who is not comfortable with women, especially those in positions of authority. This ties in with broad criticism about Abbott’s socially conservative moral values and seeks to present him as old fashioned. Those with longer memories will remember that Abbott was caught on camera in 2007 swearing during a conversation with Nicola Roxon, then Labor’s health spokesperson, after a health policy debate during the election campaign.
Clearly, being branded as an anti-woman politician is something the Coalition wants to avoid and has led to Abbott describing himself as an “entirely modern man” when it comes to working with women.
But Labor tacticians feel that this can be an important issue, especially since straw polls seem to support the idea that Abbott is anti-women.
Aside from recent questions about Gillard’s former employment in a law firm, the government has had a small, but significant, purple patch. Indeed, the Opposition can no longer rely on its most potent weapon – the carbon tax – to keep attacking the government.
The political debate has shifted and promises to more rigorously test the major parties as the next federal election edges closer.