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Pyne stands tall as Coalition emerges from the wilderness

13 February 2010 1,445 views No Comment

NOT every political player is naturally suited to doing the hard yards on the opposition benches.

With the government controlling the treasury purse strings, not to mention the parliamentary agenda, it is a simple matter to dominate the news cycle with a media drop. Announcing new programs and spending is always newsworthy, and carries more weight than opposition policies outside of the election campaign.

To combat this, an opposition shadow minister has to be relentless, quick off the mark and able to cut through the jargon with a memorable line. It is their lot in life to constantly run interference on their opposite number, while preparing for the election. Since they lost the 2007 election we have seen some major figures from the Howard government struggle on the other side. The shock of defeat after 11 1/2 years has been difficult to get over.

First to go are the plush ministerial offices and staff allocations. Next is the departmental advice on tap, not to mention the vast resources at a minister’s disposal. Then there is the shocking sense of prominence lost. Even a federal parliamentary secretary has their share of departmental officials, lobbyists and interest groups bowing and scraping, hanging on their every word.

By comparison, opposition is a cold place where members are forced to make the most of little and fight hard for a share of the national spotlight.

Kevin Rudd, in the lead-up to the 2007 election, managed to outmanoeuvre the Howard government, whose failure to rejuvenate made it easy for Labor to paint the Coalition as being old and out of touch.

But the upcoming 2010 election is an entirely different proposition for the opposition.

Bringing down the first-term Rudd government under ordinary circumstances would be tricky, but with Australia appearing to have avoided the global financial crisis, which will be central to the government’s campaign no matter how spurious, this makes the task extremely difficult.

While under some circumstances it may still be possible to win government this year, Tony Abbott also needs to plan for a two-term strategy to knock off Rudd. At minimum, he needs to hold the fort this election, make some gains if possible, and avoid losing seats, which would be disastrous both for the Coalition and for the ongoing viability of Abbott’s leadership.

To ensure a strong showing on election day Abbott needs to seriously think about how best to utilise the standout performers in the party he leads. To do so may represent the Coalition’s best shot at defeating Rudd.

After two years we have seen some new key players emerge from the tattered former government.

One of these emerging fighters is Christopher Pyne, who is showing signs of increased maturity. Shaking off a decade of being held back under Howard, and under-utilised by Brendan Nelson, Pyne emerged as one of Malcolm Turnbull’s key supporters, and was duly rewarded with the important post of shadow minister for education and manager of opposition business.

This caused some controversy at the time, with the Right of the Liberal Party feeling the moderate wing had been favoured by Turnbull. But despite this Pyne’s single most defining characteristic is that he never takes a backwards step. Indeed with the exception of Abbott and his increasingly helpful deputy, Julie Bishop, Pyne is one of the best performers in the present opposition.

Pyne has shaken off the critics in his own party with his relentless attacks in Question Time, a forensic knowledge of the standing orders after 17 years in Parliament and his general indefatigability and capacity for hard work.

Despite the recent leadership change it is telling that one of the first acts of Abbott as leader was to guarantee the continuation of Pyne in his position. While one element of this may have been to appease the factional divisions that emerged towards the end of Turnbull’s leadership, Abbott did not ignore the undeniable hits Pyne has had on his opposite number, Julia Gillard.

Considered to be the strongest performer in the Rudd government and lauded as a future prime minister, Gillard is great on her feet and a darling of the media. Gillard was considered to be quite untouchable despite the trouble that I’ve identified previously in this column, namely that she often struggles with delivering on the nuts and bolts of her mega-portfolio.

The Coalition has seized on this since Pyne became shadow minister for education and recently he has done considerable damage to the perception of education as an unquestioned plus for the government. With major programs over budget and under investigation by the auditor, this is a tremendous outcome, and the best any opposition could hope for when billions of dollars are being thrown around. The Coalition line that Gillard is someone who has too much on her plate and a part-time minister appears to increasingly grate on her, especially since Pyne is managing to take the gleam off Gillard’s armour.

In this election year the Coalition will need some big ideas of their own in an attempt to control the policy agenda and the media cycle during the forthcoming campaign.

Trying to gazump the government in education may still be difficult given the massive spending, so it will be Pyne’s job to continue to take the gloss of the government’s program. This is a task for which the parliamentary terrier from South Australia is extremely well suited.

The Weekend Australian, February 13-14, 2010

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