Jun 17, 2010

Can the Liberals win? And win with Tony Abbott?

Kevin Rudd's problems are handily distracting attention from the fact that Tony Abbott appears to be dragging the Coalition vote down.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

All of the political focus in the past fortnight has been -- correctly -- on the Prime Minister.  Even if the leadership speculation is entirely the product of journalists craving the excitement of a leadership contest -- because it's been a good seven months since we had one -- and the partisan agendas of some outlets, the spectacular collapse of Kevin Rudd's own standing and the Labor vote has merited extensive analysis.  And got it, by the bucket load. That's fortunate for Tony Abbott because in other circumstances coalition MPs would be looking very closely at his performance. Essential Research's polling shows that the coalition primary vote has been at about 41% since early May.  For an extended period this year, the Liberal vote was stuck in the mid-30s, but in the May 10 poll it pushed up to 39% and has been there ever since, apart from May 17 when coalition support briefly spiked at 43% (41% for the Liberals and 2% for the Nationals). Since then, all the action has been with the Greens, not the coalition.  Given that the government has been stumbling from one stuff-up to the next and lacked any clear air to communicate its key messages, this stalling of the coalition vote raises questions.  As with any polling analysis, of course, the next poll could blow all this to bits, but something appears to be weighing down the conservative vote. The obvious answer is that it's Abbott.  If there's any leader less popular than Rudd at the moment, it's Abbott, who has even higher dissatisfaction ratings. Digging a little deeper into the numbers, Abbott does indeed appear to be a problem.  Asked who has the best leadership team early this month, Labor held a 16% lead over the coalition.  But, problematically, only 75% of Liberal voters thought the coalition had the better team (compared to 95% of Labor voters).  And 34%-5% of undecided voters thought Labor had the better team. This can be deceptive.  Governments naturally have higher-profile senior ministers because they're constantly in the media.  Shadow ministers, even high-profile ones, struggle to get coverage and that influences voters' perceptions.  But that doesn't stop voters from kicking governments out -- the inevitable criticism of beleaguered governments that their opponents are "inexperienced" never gets traction with voters, perhaps because they understand the basic logic that if you've been out of power for a decade, of course, you're not going to have massive ministerial experience. But Abbott's approval numbers from late May also suggest he has a problem with undecided and even Liberal voters.  It was during this period, of course, that he was regularly taking aim at his own foot and firing rapidly.  Rudd scored 21%/68% strongly approve/approve with Labor voters.  Abbott only managed 11%/61% from Liberal voters. And 32% and 14% of undecided voters disapproved/strongly disapproved of his performance.  Rudd got 23%/9% disapprove/strongly disapprove from undecideds, and 28% approve, compared to 10% for Abbott.  And, again, Liberal voters were less enthusiastic about Abbott than Labor voters were about Rudd -- 72% total approval for Abbott, 89% for Rudd from Labor voters.  The only really stark comparison in Abbott's favour is with older voters -- Rudd is entirely out of favour with voters over 65, while Abbott at least polls well with them. Guess that increase in the pension's not helping, Kevin. It could be that Abbott's problems will disappear when sufficient time elapses between his remarkable meltdowns on Neil Mitchell and the 7.30 Report.  But his stocks have been falling ever since he lost the health debate with the Prime Minister earlier in the year, which hit him hard.  He recovered briefly, but ended up back at his post-debate low after stuffing up in those interviews. Like the Prime Minister, Abbott needs to respond to an obvious disillusionment with him among voters.  Possibly some of Abbott's reputational issues are long-established and hard to shift, but diehard Abbott-haters were never likely to be Liberal voters anyway.  In particular, Abbott might need to hand off some of the negative campaign work to offsiders so that he can look more prime ministerial.  Like Malcolm Turnbull, Abbott seems to have suffered from doing his own dirty work.  Rather than letting their lieutenants do the attacking, both men elected to take the personal attacks against the Prime Minister up themselves.  Turnbull's blew up in his own face in spectacular fashion, of course, but Abbott has had a lot more success.  In both cases, however, they have been victims of their own tactics. Abbott's success has put his party back within reach of the government.  The problem is whether he can go that further step and get them ahead.  His colleagues might face the same problem that Labor faced with Kim Beazley -- Beazley made them competitive, but didn't have what was necessary to get them over the line. Last weekend at the Deakin Lecture on the Politics of Climate Change, Turnbull got a hero's welcome.  This is the Turnbull who cut a deal with the government to further neuter an already-useless CPRS in favour of polluters.  Nevertheless, he is by default the only major politician in favour of real action on climate change.  His party colleagues, apart from Sue Boyce and Judith Troeth, have cut and run (or, in the case of Greg Hunt, opted to save their own political skins and toe the denialist line).  Kevin Rudd has transformed one of his greatest strengths into probably his greatest weakness on the issue.  Purged of his disastrous association with Godwin Grech by the fire of his leadership ordeal, Turnbull might be able to redirect a lot of the votes that have drifted from Labor to the Greens over towards the Liberals, which would probably win the election, and win it handily. But that's all for the coming months.  Tony Abbott has time to turn around his problems with voters, if he's smart enough.

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13 thoughts on “Can the Liberals win? And win with Tony Abbott?

  1. skink

    it seems that the conclusion to be drawn form this is that The Libs numbers go up whenever Abbott is not on the television, not giving interviews, not debating the Prime Minister, and not standing up in Parliament beating his chest

    all he has to do is hide for the next year and let rudd stuff up, and he’s a shoo-in

  2. Roger

    Rudd and the Govt are doing their best with the announcement in this mornings SMH…
    “Federal Government is hiding controversial plans to force ISPs to store internet activity of all Australian internet users regardless of whether they have been suspected of wrongdoing. “{

    I am reaching the conclusion Rudd is akin to the pied piper, leading his rat pack to the edge of the cliff, awaiting the right tune to be played before plunging over.

  3. John Bennetts

    One problem with the prospect of Abbott handing the dirty work to a front bencher…

    Which one?
    Julie Bishop, who has personality absense defect?
    Joe Hockey, aka Sloppy Joe?
    Warren Truss? Sorry, he’s a National, too busy representing his 2% of Oz.
    Eric Abetz? Representing Tasmania, a bit more than 2% but not really strike material, unless it is industrial strikes you are after. Minister for WorkChoices Mark 2. Best left quietly aside.
    Christopher Pyne, Opposition Spokesperson for Education and Training, etc? A bit of an unknown due to low profile. Perhaps because his portfolios are not Opposition strong points.
    Barnaby Joice? ‘Nuff said.
    The Old Person’s Home? Bronwyn Bishop, Phil Ruddock? Have had credibility by-passes due to past association with the Howard.

    The soil Abbott has to work with is both thin and infertile.

    It’s true that Australia needs a better Opposition, but there is so little talent to work with that perhaps it is best that we hear so infrequently from the current crop.

    Tony, your best chance seems to be for you and your team to shut up and wait for the Government to become unelectable, which at the present rate, will happen next month some time. Don’t worry about policies – we already know that you are an acknowledged liar and proud of it. Just be patient.

  4. Simon de Little

    Secret meeting between Abbott & Abetz –

  5. Frank Birchall

    “Even if the leadership speculation is entirely the product of journalists craving the excitement of a leadership contest — because it’s been a good seven months since we had one — and the partisan agendas of some outlets …”

    That quote says it all about the disastrous decline in standards of media reporting. In other words, it’s entirely possible, even desirable, that leadership speculation (and accompanying decline in Rudd’s popularity) has been confected by “journalists craving the excitement” etc. coupled with “partisan agendas” of some outlets. To hell with an ethical responsibility to report factually and then interpret objectively the meaning of those facts; let’s just drum up a farrago of nonsense about leadership and it will develop a life of its own, as usual. What’s more, the icing on the cake is that it could help to bring down a PM with his government — mission accomplished — Australia’s democracy in action!

  6. Keith Bedford

    I agre with Frank Birchall. I have seen the greatest farago of lies and mistruths in the Australain Media that I have seen since the same tactics were used on Whitlam. If Abbot wins then God help us but the voters have their own susequent catastophe to deal with, unfortunately they wil also rain it on me and my familly.

  7. Jim Reiher

    They say we get the government we deserve. But a lot of folk who don’t vote for any government must feel a bit ripped off by that assessment.

    And I suspect there is more to it than that too. I think we get the government the media promote the most. Maybe not always… I don’t really want to concede to the super rich owners of the popular media, that much power…. But I think they have their significant part to play. How else could Rudd’s fortunes have reversed in just a few months, from “unbeatable”, to “probably will lose”? The spin… the all important spin … that moulds the voters minds.

    Is democracy that thin in modern Australia?

  8. dragonista

    Some people seem to have the memory-span of goldfish when it comes to the role of media in leadership speculation. I remember a number of Fairfax journalists playing a partisan role in pushing Keating’s case both times he challenged Hawke. The media also built up the leadership credentials of Bronwyn Bishop and Carmen Lawrence before tearing them both down. And let’s not forget their direct participation in the leadership campaigns of both Latham and Rudd. It is naive if not totally disingenuous to be surprised at this phenomenon happening again this time around.

  9. Salamander

    As of last week I no longer read msm political commentators, probably soon extended to Crikey. I can’t believe what I am reading everywhere. The rampant and contagious anti-Labor beat-up is palpable. And the punters are not capable of thinking for themselves even when faced with outrageous claims that are clearly against their interests like the anti mining royalties bullshit. Every single thing Rudd has done is being portrayed as a negative, and I can only agree with the writer above that we have not seen the like since the Whitlam era. And of course we haven’t – Hawke /Keating pandered to the neocons by deregulating everything. Rudd should take heart that he is seen as such a huge threat to vested interests. Can he still find the language to differentiate policy, now that class is taboo? Ludicrous that the likes of Forrest and Palmer can use the term “communist” with a straight face. yet calling that lot as fascists does not carry plausible propaganda value in this country. It should.

  10. Oscar

    @Jim Reiher

    I generally agree with your comments, but “probably will lose”? I don’t think so. Labor still looks like winning the election quite handily. The main reason Abbott has gained ground recently is that his minders have had the sense to keep a paper bag over his head for the last few months – but this can’t last much longer.

    I personally can’t wait for the campaign proper to start. It will be fun to watch the fruit loop disintegrate when he finally has to tell people what policies he supports, rather than those he simply opposes. Oh, wait … we know what these are: Work Choices, Higher taxes for small business and lower taxes for mining companies, Sinking refugee boats, and Putting women back at the ironing board rather than on the company board. Have I missed anything?

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