Scott Morrison pulls out the nuclear option five months from the election

Asking people around Parliament House during the past week or so to nominate the Coalition government’s sweet spot and they struggled, but most eventually put it at varying points in the Turnbull era.

While the internal warfare continued and constrained the government, while the then prime minister appeared unable to move within these constraints, there was at least some sense of coherence in the way the place was run.

By contrast, the sense that the government is now in full death-rattle mode is much more of a consensus opinion, to the extent that there was a widespread view as MPs and senators went home on Thursday and Friday that – as was canvassed in this space a few weeks ago – it was just not a viable option for the government to come back and sit out a period until a May election.

The shambles in Parliament in the past few days may have given the Coalition a short-term breathing space, in that it avoided a humiliating defeat on asylum seekers, but it has also just left with a range of unresolved problems to contend with when and if Parliament comes back for its nanosecond appearance in February.

Key planks of what passes for energy policy – including a policy-forced divestment of energy assets that seems to run counter to everything the Liberal Party is supposed to stand for – will also never see the light of day. David Rowe

It still faces a defeat on asylum seeker policy in the House of Representatives.

Key planks of what passes for energy policy – including a policy-forced divestment of energy assets that seems to run counter to everything the Liberal Party is supposed to stand for – will also never see the light of day.

Not a good sign

It is not a good sign for the government’s political fortunes – if it does indeed plan to survive until May – that the Prime Minister felt compelled to bring out the nuclear option on Thursday: a combination of attacks on Labor on those old Coalition staples of national and border security.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, the PM told a Canberra press conference in his angriest and most indignant voice on Thursday morning, is “a threat to national security”.

The really big political question is: does this stuff work any more, and does it work from a government so conspicuously dysfunctional and opportunistic? David Rowe

The Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, tweeted (but subsequently deleted) later in the day that “Labor has chosen to allow terrorists and paedophiles to continue their evil work in order to engage in point scoring”.

Scott Morrison continued the attack on Friday morning on commercial television, repeating his assertion that Shorten was a “threat to national security” and was “dragged kicking and screaming” to passing a bill increasing police powers to access encrypted messaging apps, despite the Opposition passing a bill to deal with this late on Thursday night

“I do think Bill Shorten is a threat when it comes to our national security because he has to be dragged kicking and screaming every time you try and get these things done,” he told the Nine Network.

“You don’t try and play politics with these things.”

Well, actually, no you don’t, except apparently if you are Scott Morrison, the man who floated the idea of moving Australia’s embassy to Jerusalem during a byelection, without consulting the defence or foreign affairs establishments

There are a few points to note here.

Labor has believed for some time that an increasingly desperate government would gear up for an attack on these security issues, on the basis that it has always worked for them before.

This seemed to be the reason that, all of a sudden last Friday, a co-operative process of consultation and negotiation on proposed encryption laws through the powerful Parliamentary Joint Committee on Security and Intelligence suddenly closed down.

Government ministers emerged last weekend on cue to attack Labor as friends of terrorists before a further U-turn in which Attorney-General Christian Porter signalled a return to a sensible process, but one hampered by the looming closing of Parliament.

The political plan was clear enough to prompt Labor to make the pragmatic decision on Thursday night that it was not going to give the government a free kick on this during the summer. And it decided to let the encryption bill through.

Does this stuff work any more?

The grim spectre that a desperate government might go as far as to blame Labor for any terror attacks during the summer hung in the air.

But the really big political question here is: does this stuff work any more, and does it work from a government that is so conspicuously dysfunctional and opportunistic?

You might remember it was only last week that the government was arguing its fight with Labor would be over economic management.

But after another appalling week of disunity, and humiliation in both houses of Parliament, in which the crossbench was able to make asylum seeker policy an issue over which the government had no control, the Prime Minister apparently felt there was no option but to ramp up the security rhetoric to 11.

The government, in its panic, still thinks it can play on the electorate’s strong views on border protection.

But polling in recent months suggests the gap between the parties on borders and national security have closed significantly.

Further, the issue of border security has become more complicated because of the growing electoral and political unease about the five-year detention of asylum seekers.

Neither side of politics seems prepared to move from the status quo of boat turnbacks, temporary protection visas and offshore detention.

But the fact the government is now trying to make a virtue of the fact that it is getting children off Nauru shows the politics of the issue have become more complicated.

And the fact that the crossbench has emerged to argue for more changes in policy – that realistically are still only at the margins – shows there is a sense abroad that the politics of this issue have shifted.

The government goes into the holiday season without any clear policy framework from which to fight the next election beyond “we aren’t Labor”.

That works only if voters think that matters. And the Coalition, in its long downward spiral, seems determined to ensure they don’t care

Laura Tingle is ABC 7.30’s chief political correspondent

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