Pugilistic Labor tries to land a blow as Abbott skips away

While everyone's been busy debating whether Tony Abbott's alleged pugilism is real or a fit-up by Labor ladies wielding handbags, it's been easy to overlook the fact that the next election campaign is shaping as one where it is the ALP that will have to pick a fight.

The reason is all about the framing.

Abbott wants to frame the campaign as a referendum on the record and competence of Labor in government.

No, this is not another condemnation of him for being negative. In a strategic sense, it is probably logical, given the material he has been gifted, and yes, he will release his policies when he is ready, which, as has been the case with all oppositions since John Hewson's unfortunate Fightback! experiment, will be much closer to polling day.

But even when the Opposition Leader is ostensibly being ''positive'' it is through the frame of his constant attack on Labor.

''I see myself as a man on a mission,'' he said this week as he visited a suburban pool to talk about the carbon tax. Again. ''A mission to rebuild family budgets by ending Labor's unnecessary taxes, to rebuild infrastructure … by ending Labor's neglect, to rebuild border security by stopping Labor's boats and, above all, to rebuild trust, by ending Labor's lies.''

And he does not need the ALP to engage with him in these regular free assessments of its gross mendacity and incompetence.

Although it is, of course, a bonus for him when they (regularly) do - such as this week, when Lindsay Tanner started talking about whether or not the party had a soul or a purpose and whether the Rudd cabinet was just a little bit dysfunctional or totally zapped - as half the cabinet had alleged in February.

Labor, on the other hand, wants the election to be a choice between two visions for the country; what it sees as two very different sets of priorities about where to spend government money and where to save it, and two totally divergent policies on industrial relations.

Labor wants to frame itself as the party of ''fairness'', ''shared values'' and ''shared benefits'' in contrast to the Liberals, which it wants to paint as a party of division, unfairness and pandering to privilege.

Framing a debate in moral terms, talking about ''values and deep truths'' and then the policies ''that flow from them'' is exactly what a Berkeley professor of cognitive science, George Lakoff, has long been advising politicians to do, most recently in his co-authored Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic.

Lakoff argues that ''morality trumps policy'', that people make voting decisions based on emotion and metaphor rather than a detailed analysis of policy, and that Democrats in the US, including the President, Barack Obama, regularly make the mistake of talking policy without putting it in a moral framework.

He argues ''facts have no meaning outside of frames, metaphors and moral language''.

But to start the moral framing process, in any more sophisticated way than just appealing to our inner Bruce Springsteen, Labor needs to be able to make some kind of policy comparison.

By Lakoff's reasoning Labor doesn't necessarily need the coalition's full Excel spreadsheet, not even its detailed policy, but it does need to be able to point to something as the basis for its moral or value-based contentions about what a Liberal government would do. So it has to goad the Coalition onto its chosen battlefield. It has to pick a fight.

And it has had its dukes up for a while, often hitting out at the conservative states as a means of trying to engage Abbott by proxy. The Coalition, by contrast, has been engaging in passive non-violent resistance when it comes to policy engagement. It has been refusing to fight back.

The Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten, for example, ''ruled out'' any watering down of weekend penalty rates, even as Fair Work Australia was conducting a review into exactly that issue. But the Coalition refused to oblige by coming out on the side of the employers. Even though retailers and restaurateurs were threatening job losses and begging the Coalition to back their concerns, the Coalition said it wouldn't be giving its opinion until it saw the outcome of the review.

Shorten has also promised to amend the Fair Work Act to force any jobs outsourced by state governments to retain the same pay and conditions as before. The Coalition has refused to comment (they haven't yet seen the specific proposal, not something that stops them venturing an opinion in other circumstances).

The Finance Minister, Penny Wong, pledged that Labor would find savings from the public service through ''paper cuts'' - online publishing rather than printing, and cutting travel and the like, rather than job losses. The Coalition said Labor's numbers didn't add up, but did nothing to quantify its own cuts - which it talks up outside Canberra and, in the ACT, promises will be arrived at without forced redundancies, through natural attrition.

Nevertheless, the state government public service sackings give Labor a hook for its moral framing comparison.

As the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, told the Queensland Labor conference: ''Labor governments cut millionaires' dental schemes - Liberal governments sack ambulance officers … And this is why Newman's budget razor is Abbott's curtain-raiser.''

The Prime Minister also started a rhetorical war with the Liberal states over the regulation of power pricing, handily highlighting the large non-carbon tax component of recent price rises, blaming the states for price gouging and insisting they agree to regulatory changes which they were showing every sign of agreeing to anyway. She failed to coax the Opposition Leader into a discussion of anything beyond the carbon tax, but she succeeded in getting some public traction for the idea that much of the recent price hike has other causes.

If Abbott can make it through to sometime close to polling day saying that, like Labor, he aspires to better education, fair disability reform sometime in the future, a good environment, reducing carbon emissions etc, etc - but that he won't stuff things up while achieving these goals, then the ALP's goose is truly cooked.

That's why it's Labor that really needs to pick a fight right now.

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