We’re starting to get a clearer polling picture of the impact of Tony Abbott’s ascension.  Yesterday’s Essential Research poll had the government maintaining a 2PP lead of 58-42 — the same as the previous two fortnightly surveys.  According to Essential Research, Abbott also kicked off with a net dissatisfaction rating of -2%, being the first Opposition leader to ever do so — although he was way, way ahead of  Malcolm Turnbull, who final net dissatisfaction rating was -30%.

The idea that leaders with high net dissatisfaction ratings don’t stay around too long has again been borne out.

Last week’s Newspoll, portrayed in the right-wing media as the herald of an Abbott-led Liberal surge, was much the same — a one-point improvement in the 2PP to 56-44, and a poor debut on Better PM numbers (which, when they favour a Liberal, are invoked by News Ltd’s luminaries as the key polling indicator).

One of the attractions of an end-of-year leadership change is that the honeymoon/polling bounce is immediately followed by the political dead zone of summer holidays, meaning that momentum is sustained into the start of the new political year in February when everyone — well, the 5% of the population that pays attention to politics — tunes in again.  Mark Latham carried his honeymoon well into 2004 before gradually falling back to earth, but Kevin Rudd, buoyed by soft-focus ads over the summer break, used the bounce as a platform that rattled and confused the Howard team all the way to the election. In fact, Rudd’s honeymoon is still going three years later.

Abbott’s problem is not so much that there has been no real bounce — although that’s not exactly good news — but the fact that he’s such a known quantity for voters.  As Possum Comitatus showed in his analysis of the Newspoll data, the only “new” leader to get a lower level of uncommitteds in his initial poll was Kim Beazley, after he replaced Latham and began his second stint as leader.

This is the flipside of the benefit of name recognition.  For relatively unknown new leaders, such as Rudd or Alexander Downer, there’s a healthy pool of undecided voters who can be converted (Rudd) or lost (Downer).  For well-known figures such as Turnbull or Latham — who already had a profile with his, shall we say, “colourful” language and interesting past — there are still undecideds, but fewer of them.

But for well-established quantities such as Beazley and Abbott, voters know them pretty well, and either they think they’ve got the right stuff or they don’t.  Abbott has been on the public radar for a decade, and he leaves few people in two minds about what they think of him.

Abbott has to start convincing more voters he has the right stuff, if necessary by making them switch to “undecided” as a first stop.

It’s only early days and it’s tough during a mid-term leadership transition, especially one as acrimonious as this, but Abbott’s media strategy so far has been decidedly vanilla.  It has been heavily dominated by AM radio, with two appearances on Alan Jones’ program, plus turns on the usual suspects such as The 7.30 Report, Lateline, Sky and the Oakes interview.

That is not going to get too many voters to change their minds, because most voters ignore those media.  Yes, there is something to be said for kissing the, um, ring of Alan Jones, who caused merry hell in the Liberal base for Turnbull over climate change.  But that’s the problem — the 90-in-the-shade audiences of Jones and Steve Price are the types who wouldn’t vote Labor at gunpoint.  They already think Abbott really is the lovechild of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop and adore him all the more for it.  But the standard political program merry-go-round — where he will struggle to get his message across in the face of hostile questioning anyway — is primarily for the political tragics, among whom there are likely to be pretty much zero undecideds about Abbott, and who form a tiny fraction of the population anyway.

As I’ve said ad nauseum while watching three Liberal leaders struggle to work out how to take on the Prime Minister, it will repay the Liberals to study how Rudd’s media strategy as Opposition leader worked (making it the only successful strategy since 1996, an entirely different political era).  Rudd used “softer” media — FM radio, chat shows — to sell his adopted persona of the nerdy, conservative but intelligent and self-deprecating bloke who could be trusted with the Prime Ministership.  He targeted demographics such as younger voters, for whom AM radio is equivalent to the carrier pigeon.  And it was an uncontested space politically.  You would have needed an act of Parliament to get John Howard on  a chat show or talking to some “breakfast crew” on an FM network.

So far, Abbott has done one FM interview, and yes, he had to talk about his chest hair and biffing Joe Hockey, but if Rudd could manage that sort of thing, surely Abbott can.  It’s not so much that he needs to ape Rudd’s approach — for one thing, one of Rudd’s favourite platforms, Rove (either, pace Beazley, McManus or Karl) isn’t around anymore — but the task of changing voters’ perceptions of him can’t rely solely on AM radio and a regular grilling by Jones.

He should also note how easily his predecessor can garner a headline through a blog post and a single tweet.  Abbott’s twitter count stands at, um, two, since he set it up two weeks ago.  We don’t all have to be early adopters such as Turnbull, but the John Howard model of looking like he belonged to the crystal set era is not going to help. What will help is that he has a more genuine and engaging personality than Rudd — Abbott is an affable, witty and intelligent man, without Turnbull’s aura of conviction that he’s the smartest guy in the room (Turnbull was usually right, but that’s not the point).

Given the relative lack of funding for the Liberals — they have lost their primary rainmaker to the backbench and big business is unlikely to be enamoured of Barnaby Joyce’s or Kevin Andrews’s call for an end to large-scale immigration — how Abbott exploits the media will be all the more important in the lead-up to the election.  He’s only got a month-and-a-half to work out his strategy.

Peter Fray

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