An untidy end to a messy year provides little hope for Scott Morrison’s re-election chances.
The polls are bad, the minority parliament is giving him headaches, and he’s relying on old arguments.
On the last Canberra day of the year the prime minister stood alone in front of journalists and fell back on the one shining achievement of the Abbott government.
‘In this place, people can have some short memories,’ Morrison said on Thursday.
‘It wasn’t that long ago where boats crashed on the rocks and children were dragged up from the sea face down.
‘I remember it. I stopped it.’
He lashed out at Labor for playing ‘political games’ by supporting a bill designed to get kids off Nauru.
All of Thursday’s Question Time was the government haranguing Labor about boat arrivals, accusing them of playing politics.
But some people have longer memories.
Like the time the coalition, under orders from Tony Abbott, refused Julia Gillard’s attempt to send asylum-seekers to Malaysia under a regional deal in 2011.
Hundreds more died after that political game was played, thousands more sent to off shore detention.
The coalition wants to talk about boats and refugees because it is the one area where it has an absolute clear lead over Labor in the electorate.
But Labor learned those lessons the hard way in government.
Immigration ministers Tony Burke and Chris Bowen and Brendan O’Connor were frontline witnesses to the deaths.
Shorten will not allow the people-smuggling trade to restart. The issue was so potent in the coalition’s hands, Labor still bears the scars.
‘We will turn back boats where it is safe to do so. We will still keep offshore processing full stop,’ Shorten told reporters on Friday.
He will push ahead with new resettlement deals, including with New Zealand, but asylum-seekers who come to Australia by boat will never be allowed to stay.
The minority parliament is proving difficult for Morrison to work with. At least Gillard knew what she was working with from the start.
The Greens and crossbenchers want to get refugee children off Nauru, and they now likely have the numbers to get it done.
The coalition is also trying to avoid being forced to refer Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to the high court over questions about his eligibility.
Now both of those have been pushed off until February.
At least Morrison won’t have to deal with a leadership challenge before the May election.
On Monday night the Liberal Party changed its rules so a sitting prime minister cannot be toppled unless there is a two-thirds majority of the party room.
It came out of the blue, just weeks after Morrison said there were no plans to change the rules.
‘This is a matter that I have always had a view now for some months that would need to be addressed and certainly need to be addressed before the parliament rose at the end of the year,’ Morrison said on Monday.
The timing was curious. There has been no real push for a challenge.
But the polls are bad and trending down. Labor is ahead 55-45 on the two-party preferred vote, which would guarantee Shorten a big win.
So if there was going to be a push to install Julie Bishop – a moderate with broader appeal to voters – to save the furniture it’s likely over now.
Morrison is ramping up attacks on Shorten but the Labor leader is ready for it.
‘Every time you see Scott Morrison on his feet he talks about me,’ Shorten said.
‘The Australian people don’t really care what Mr Morrison thinks about me – they want to know what he is going to do for the country.’
After five years of immense policy, economic and social change, the perception is that the coalition is petering out.
The problem was there under Malcolm Turnbull, who only had the National Energy Guarantee and corporate tax cuts left in his policy kitbag, but it’s even worse now.
Morrison is pressing all the buttons, pulling all the levers, but at the moment voters seem to think it’s Shorten who has the answers.