Labor has suffered a spectacular decline in its standing with voters.
AS JULIA Gillard prepares to enjoy the pomp of the royal wedding, her problems at home compound. A bad inflation figure has made the carbon price debate harder, and increased the prospect of an interest rate rise later in the year. On another front, the government has been forced to announce it will toughen the law after the recent detention centre rioting.
Now the East Timorese have finally blown out of the water Gillard's pre-election proposal to have them host a processing centre for asylum seekers.
President Jose Ramos-Horta - who initially responded much more positively than others in East Timor - was negative and definite this week:''Timor-Leste says that we will not agree to set up an asylum seeker processing centre in the country.''
The Australian government has stubbornly refused to admit failure in relation to a plan that we can now see was never going to fly. When Immigration Minister Chris Bowen was pressed about the lack of progress this week, he was forced to just blather: ''Well, certainly these discussions and negotiations have taken time.''
The demise of the Gillard plan - and the government's reluctance to come clean - is important for more than the obvious reasons. As has been clear for months, it underlines that Labor's border protection policy is a shambles. And it reinforces the impression of a PM performing poorly and trying to cover up mistakes and failures.
This week's Essential Research poll documented how, in a relatively short time, voters' views of Labor have gone sour. When people are asked about attributes of the main parties, Labor does worse than the Liberals on almost all counts. In contrast, Labor was performing significantly more strongly than the Liberals on all similar questions in March 2010 (before Kevin Rudd's overthrow).
The story of Labor's decline in public estimation under both Rudd and Gillard comes through starkly when the public's answers from 2009 to 2011 are compared. It has been a spectacular slide in less than two years.
In July 2009, 60 per cent thought Labor had a good team of leaders; by March 2010, this was down to 52 per cent; it is now an appalling 34 per cent. In 2009, 44 per cent said Labor was out of touch with ordinary voters; it crept up to 48 per cent in 2010 and is now 61 per cent.
The numbers indicate the credibility of Labor's word is shot to pieces. Seventy two per cent say Labor will promise anything to win votes (63 per cent in 2010; 57 per cent in 2009), while only 20 per cent think it keeps its promises (33 per cent in 2010 - shortly before Rudd retreated on his emissions trading promise - and 44 per cent in 2009).
The Timor processing centre can be seen as a case study in the sort of behaviour that has disillusioned people: Gillard was willing to promise whatever it took to garner votes, and was then unable to deliver.
It is unsurprising that only 28 per cent say Labor is clear about what it stands for. The chopping and changing on carbon is notorious, but it's the same with asylum seeker policy.
Labor said when it came to office that it stood for strong border protection and a humane approach towards asylum seekers, with quick processing of claims. Unfortunately, it has found the first two commitments to be in conflict, and the third impossible to fulfil.
Its injection of greater humanity into asylum seeker policy contributed to the revival of the boat flow (there's argument about how much). The government had the choice of living with this, and explaining that the numbers were small compared with other countries' inflows, or cracking down. Starting under Rudd, it took the latter course.
That wasn't successful - the boats kept coming, detention centres had to be expanded, and processing fell further behind. There are now more than 6000 in detention (although Bowen says processing is speeding up).
Riots, burning buildings, rooftop demonstrations, hunger strikes and the spectre of self-harm have increased the pressure on the government. Hence this week's announcement of legislation to ensure any refugee convicted of an offence in detention will fail the ''character'' test that is applied for granting permanent visas. The minister has the final decision, and Bowen says these people would get only a temporary visa. (If they have been judged refugees, they can't just be packed off home without Australia breaching its international obligations.)
The attempt to insert a deterrent to bad behaviour is reasonable, though there's no guarantee it will be effective. Some involved have had their refugee claims rejected; such people won't be deterred. Nor will those simply driven to desperation by long incarceration.
So what can the government do to get some order into its asylum seeker policy? Probably, given the cross pressures, not a lot. Obviously, as ALP senator Doug Cameron said this week, it has to ''pedal harder'' to get detainees processed. But it can't kid itself this will be a solution - it could even encourage arrivals.
It isn't going to resort to sending people to Nauru, and it shouldn't. It ought to continue pursuing a region-wide approach to strongly discouraging people smuggling - but results won't be quick. And it should try to persuade the Australian public that the problem ought to be kept in proportion.
But when few people believe the government knows what it stands for - and it seems often in doubt itself - what hope would it have of getting that challenging message across?
Michelle Grattan is political editor.