Is the medical transfer bill the hill Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten are willing to die on? | Peter Lewis | Australia news

While the various skirmishes consuming the febrile final days of the 45th parliament of the commonwealth of Australia may just be a prelude to the upcoming election campaign, they are not insignificant.

The way the politics of the next two weeks are managed will go a long way to determining not just the election themes but the battleground itself: the hill the protagonists are willing to die on.

Judging from Monday’s National Press Club address Scott Morrison is in no doubt about the hill he wants to die on, with his shouty and sometimes shifty invocation of the national security risks inherent in giving doctors the right to determine the health of offshore detainees.

Beyond the overt attempt to trump the Hippocratic oath with his own more hypocritical version, this was a call to take his troops to the familiar trenches of border protection. This is the home of some of the Coalition’s most famous victories; the battle of Tampa of 2001, the turn back the boats campaign of 2013. Morrison knows the terrain well: wedge the ALP between the compassion of its activists and the readily combustible fears of the general public and turn the volume up to 11.

And so a seemingly benign piece of humanitarian legislation, conceived of and championed by conservative independents concerned their former party’s lust for power has made it an agent for repression, takes on surplus meaning.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten must be sorely tempted to take the historic opportunity to defeat a sitting government on the floor of parliament and force the government to end this immoral treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru. Indeed, for a leader who struggles to inspire his base, this is a golden opportunity to prove his progressive chops.

Alas, as these figures from October illustrate, this is not the hill that Shorten wants to die on.

Would you support or oppose the following actions regarding the refugees being held on Nauru?

For all the focus on the plight of those on Nauru, the public is still split on propositions to close the facility, indeed beyond women and children where the issues is split, more favour the Morrison hardline. Erecting an election barricade around the issue would be a generous political gift.

In contrast, here’s a snapshot of this week’s public reaction to the banking royal commission released last week.

In contrast, here’s a snapshot of this week’s public reaction to the banking royal commission released last week.

This is a much more fertile battleground for the ALP. It’s no coincidence that this week’s Essential poll, taken during a week where the behaviour, management and regulation of the banks dominated the national conversation, saw a statistically relevant swing to Labor.

Our Essential Report picked up a two point increase in primary vote to 38% and an even more significant dip in Coalition support to deliver a two-part preferred result of 55-45. Even allowing for a 3% margin of error, the evidence is clear that when the national debate is on matters of economic fairness, particularly the conduct of large corporations, votes turn to Labor.

As I argued last week, managing the economy in the interests of ordinary Australians and standing up to powerful corporations is where Labor has the home ground advantage.

Declining to engage in other theatres may not inspire progressive passion, but it does display the sort of discipline essential to prevent this climate-denying, big business favouring government tricking its way into a third term.

That’s the forgotten thing about the saying “choosing a hill to die on”. It was never about making the decision where to fight, it was always about having the wherewithal to choose where not to perish.

Peter Lewis is the executive director of Essential and a Guardian Australia columnist

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