Tony Abbott can afford to feel a bit happier after the weekend’s by-elections — but only a bit.

The Liberals certainly avoided the backlash feared by the party’s nervous nellies, and held their safe seats without the humiliation of going to preferences.

In Bradfield, their primary vote was down by 3.7%, but most of that went to the heavenly host of Christian Democrats on the ballot paper, and came back to the Libs in preferences. In Higgins, the primary vote slipped by 1.9%, but after preferences the Libs actually picked up 1.5% on the 2007 result, suggesting that far from having a strong personal following, the departed Peter Costello may actually have been a negative factor.

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Certainly there was no evidence of a protest vote because of climate change, factional brawling or even Abbott’s appearance in budgie smugglers. But nor should there have been: protest votes are used by the electorate to chastise governments, not oppositions. With some justice the Libs point out that there were no Labor candidates standing to protest against; but any genuine anti-government vote should, to be at all useful to Abbott, have translated itself into support for the Liberals on offer.

Normally by this stage in the electoral cycle even popular governments suffer a swing against them in by-elections of about 2-5% as the voters remind them that they are not to be taken for granted. The fact that this did not occur indicates that Abbott has a lot of work to do if he is to generate any momentum for change next year. But he already knows this.

He emerged from the chaos of the past fortnight more or less by accident, and then only after Joe Hockey disqualified himself from serious consideration by answering “Maybe” to what was always a yes-no question on climate change. There is much sympathy for Hockey on the basis that he was always a reluctant candidate, persuaded to stand in order to save the party from complete destruction, and then promptly pushed over a cliff by an ungrateful party room.

But in fact Hockey may be the lucky one. There is some evidence that Nick Minchin and his fellow terrorists had planned to use Hockey as a sacrificial lamb: he would become leader and save some seats at the 2010 poll, after which he would be tossed aside like a worn-out sock and Abbott would take over for the more winnable 2013 election. Instead the roles have been reversed, and Abbott could well suffer the fate of so many of his predecessors. It is rare indeed for losing Liberal leaders to be given a second chance.

Still, once Minchin and Alan Jones made it clear they would wreck the whole party  rather than bow to Malcolm Turnbull and his views on climate change, and then Hockey refused to abandon his principles — well, not all of them — there was no choice left: as Labor had done in 2003 with Mark Latham, the only option was to kick high and chase and hope for a lucky bounce.

It was unquestionably what Sir Humphrey Appleby would have called a courageous decision; according to the polls, Abbott was the least popular candidate on offer, with views shared by less than one third of the electorate. He was certainly the choice of the bedrock, rusted-on, grass-roots heartland (choose your metaphor) of the party, but they were the ones who had nowhere else to go, except possibly to the Nationals or to fringe independents; they certainly weren’t going to vote Labor. To win back government the Libs need the middle ground, which has never been Abbott’s preferred territory.

But as he says, at least there will now be clear points of difference on just about every issue, and in some ways this is a good thing for politics in general. In particular, it means that the government has to pull its collective finger out and start working up climate change as a political priority. For more than a year it has been allowed to drift, allowing the deniers, rent-seekers and loonies to make the running, and as a result public enthusiasm for action has dwindled. If it had remained at its earlier level, Minchin’s Al-Qaeda would never have gained the acquiescence of the backbench for scepticism and rejection.

Now Abbott has put himself forward as the caped (well, Speedoed) crusader who will save us all from the greenie communist scourge. Kevin Rudd and Penny Wong will have to get back in the field and this time run a well-planned and consistent campaign to explain the science, the threat and the way to meet it. It actually doesn’t matter if the average punter does not understand exactly how an emissions trading scheme works; the average punter doesn’t understand exactly how a television set works either, but television sets are regarded as necessities in most households. Rudd’s ETS may look a bit like a black-and-white HMV set, but at least it’s a start; we can upgrade to the HD flat-screen plasma digital model as time and circumstance allow.

The important thing is to allay the doubts and fears in the electorate, which Abbott, aided by the above-mentioned deniers, rent-seekers and loonies, will be seeking to exploit. Given that the overwhelming mood in the electorate is still for action of some kind, that should not be too hard. Abbott’s formula — that any cost can be either avoided altogether or deferred — is neither defensible nor credible.

Rudd has now missed his Copenhagen deadline; he can afford to postpone his projected double dissolution election until the second half of next year, when it will be the best fit technically and politically. That gives him plenty of time to restore rationality to the debate — and for Abbott to become the third Liberal leader to self-destruct over the issue.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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