Given how thin Tony Abbott’s Budget Reply was last night, it’s only fitting that he should end up in the firing line of what wasn’t there, rather than what was. His disastrous interview this morning with Neil Mitchell — when Abbott stuffs up, he really stuffs up — came a cropper on Phil Coorey’s scoop that Abbott had been rolled by shadow cabinet over his plan to throw more money at one of his favourite interest groups, stay-at-home mothers.
Abbott billed the Budget Reply as critical in the transition from opposition to alternative government, so he himself built it up and set the benchmark for how it should be assessed. Four things emerged from it.
First, Abbott still has a problem with being perceived as an economic lightweight. The sheer lack of content of the speech meant it was a huge missed opportunity to go some of the way to addressing voter concerns that, as Peter Costello said, Tony Abbott finds economics boring. That will continue to be problem for Abbott regardless of what the government does, because his shadow Treasurer is a bloke who has done a fair bit to justify the government’s nickname “Sloppy Joe”. Unfortunately, Abbott has left Hockey to do the donkey work of announcing savings cuts next week.
Second, by switching tack away from debt-n-deficits in favour of targeting the RSPT, and by committing only to return to surplus at least as fast as the government, Abbott has quietly acknowledged that the government has won the economic competence debate it was clearly aiming for with its “faster return to surplus” theme. That it has done this, despite a $40 billion deficit next year, is a remarkable failure on the part of the Opposition — a failure to ensure that that number is uppermost in voters’ minds.
Third, Abbott has correctly sensed that Kevin Rudd is Labor’s weak link at the moment, and that his performance on the RSPT so far has been abysmal. By making the mining tax a crucial part of his election strategy, Abbott is setting Rudd a test that, on his recent performance, he seems destined to fail miserably — to effectively prosecute the case for the tax and clearly explain how it fits into the government’s basic story about the economy. Kevin Rudd — Rudd, personally — could yet lose this election for Labor, unless he rediscovers his capacity to communicate with voters and offer them a compelling narrative. Abbott’s political instincts have served him well here.
Fourthly, Abbott declared he would be bringing back elements of WorkChoices. Quite why he did this is a complete mystery — certainly to Labor figures, who were astonished and delighted that he chose to do so without any apparent need. The Liberals keep insisting they have learnt their lessons from 2007. Abbott’s insistence that voters in effect got it wrong and the Liberals want to try again suggests they haven’t come close to understanding what happened back then.
What happened was that the Liberals got mugged by a brilliant union campaign. And unlike the parliamentary party, the unions won’t be hampered by having Kevin Rudd leading their communication strategy.