Watching the World Athletics Championships this week, I couldn’t help but marvel at each athlete’s ability to kick home towards the finish line at the end of a distance race.
When it comes to politics, if a term of government is a marathon rather than a sprint, you would expect to see the government starting to kick for home right now.
But there are no signs yet.
Every week we see polls rating the performance of the leaders of political parties and voters’ preferences. Generally the question asked is along the lines of “were an election held today, which party would receive your first preference?”
Of course, such polls bring with them the inherent problem that an election is not actually being held today.
The next federal election is due in around 13 months, and it is just as well for Tony Abbot because were an election to be held today few would have any idea what it would be about.
Governments like to control the terrain over which an election is fought. John Howard made sure – rather brilliantly – that the 2004 election was fought on the issue of trust.
In particular, trust in keeping interest rates low and trust to deal with terrorism.
It is hard, however, to picture what Tony Abbott would argue the election will be about were he to step up to the microphones to announce the election date.
Right now all we really have is the sense that Tony Abbott would like to re-fight the last election – that it be about stopping the boats, stopping the carbon and mining tax and, as he said in his 2013 election speech, “changing the worst government in our history”.
Okay, perhaps he might not use that line, but most else from his 2013 speech could be regurgitated.
There has been some talk this week about how little this government has done. Last week it was revealed a cabinet meeting was held without one formal submission.
Now quantity of legislation is certainly no way to judge the performance of a government, but you would think it would take a bit sooner than 2 years for a new government to begin running out of ideas. It certainly is a bit soon to get to such a point when you consider most first-term governments run on the platform that they have made a good start, but there is a lot more work to go (and thus, they plead, let us do it).
The only clear sense we have is that Tony Abbott would like to make national security a big item for the next election – if not also for the Canning by-election to be held on 19 September.
Two weeks ago the chair of the parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, Dan Tehan, announced that Australia should start bombing ISIS in Syria.
He asserted that he hadn’t discussed his opinion with the Prime Minister but it did have the smell of the government trying to raise the issue of national security in a week in which all else was not working for the government, and also to pre-empt a future announcement.
And so came the news this week that the US government requested Australia carry out air strikes in Syria.
Fairfax papers reported that the Abbott government had actually asked the US to request Australia to do it.
A common trope among political conspiracy theorists is to invoke “Wag the Dog” – wherein a government goes to war to divert attention from domestic unpopular issues.
The reality is generally a lot more murky than that, but with the Abbott government it is not hard to believe that it is so eager to be seen to be a war-time government that it would ask the US government to do more.
Of course, the Australian forces won’t actually do more – they’ll just do what they’re doing in a different place. We’re not sending more planes, we’re just considering expanding the area in which Australian planes attack ISIS from only Iraq to also Syria.
Also no one believes the Abbott government is actually considering this request – clearly the government will agree to the request. That anyone within cabinet would consider not agreeing to the request is inconceivable.
The ALP has previously expressed doubts over the need and legality of Australia broadening its air strikes to include Syria. Thus the issue has that nice sense of being a wedge against the ALP.
It’s all pretty sad.
Sad that we have a government that would be eager to expand its military activities for political purposes, and sad as well that no one is all that shocked that this government would do so.
But air strikes in Syria are not an election issue. The ALP will likely make noise about the process, but in the end – as it always does – fall into line.
And so with national security mostly un-wedged and relatively unconcerned – unless it involved asylum seekers – the issues of the election will go back, as they always do, to the economy.
This week, Joe Hockey once again mooted the need for tax cuts, and once again he gave no indication of how he would pay for them.
The economy itself remains pretty tepid and hardly boasting the performance that would see a government wish to rest its laurels on.
And so with little over a year to go, the government limps along, already at the point where it seems tired and needing diversions from overseas to help with its domestic political prospects.
So far from looking like kicking towards the finish line, right now they look like they’ll be lucky to reach it.
Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.