Tony Abbott has learnt well from his mentor John Howard.

When he came to the leadership, many expected him to implode, wrecking his party along with him, as a result of his ideological fervour and indiscipline.

I suggested he would in effect destroy the Liberal Party, turning it into a “reactionary rump”.

Some rump. He’ll be Prime Minister within a few days, most likely.

Abbott did what Howard — who also had a reputation as an ideological extremist — did in his second stint as leader. He simply removed those elements of his political persona perceived as out of keeping with mainstream thinking. Instead of wanting to gut Medicare, Howard became “the best friend Medicare ever had.” Instead of stopping Asian immigration, Howard ran a high immigration program. Pressed on a GST, he declared “never ever” (although, thankfully, he recanted).

Abbott did the same. IR reform was nixed. His obsession with stopping Medicare funding of abortion — one of the first things Tony Abbott raised as Health Minister — was dropped. He adopted paid parental leave, which he had previously vowed to do everything to stop, with the passion of a convert, in order to demonstrate that he wasn’t the misogynist bogeyman of media caricature.

Like Howard’s transformation, it worked in convincing the electorate of his fundamental trustworthiness as a candidate for the Prime Ministership. Tony Abbott’s “unelectability” wasn’t a myth created by the left-wing media and the ALP. It showed up time and again in focus group research. Abbott was perceived as mad. But he assiduously worked to correct that.

That other successful component of Abbott’s strategy was to relentlessly target Labor’s incompetence. As a former journalist, Abbott is deadly at settling on a simple, appealing narrative and locking his opponents into it. Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard repeatedly failed to deal with this, and in effect allowed Abbott to set the terms of much of the debate over the last 9 months, particularly on fiscal policy.

In this, he was helped no end by a compliant, or in the case of News Ltd, partisan media. But Abbott was always at his best when negative; whenever he switched to positive policies, he struggled, even during the campaign. It will be fascinating to see if he continues this in office, in effect become Prime Attack Dog, particularly given the dearth of quality on his frontbench.

The only problems for Abbott (apart from his triumphalist speech last night, which may yet have repercussions electorally) have been the performance of the NSW and WA Liberal Parties. This has been one of the real shocks of yesterday. I expected the LNP to fail Abbott, given the shenanigans that went on up in  Queensland for much of the last two years. But in spite of that, the LNP came through, picking up what looks like 6 seats. But in regional NSW the Liberals actually went backwards, with seats like Page and Eden-Monaro swinging to Labor.

And the results of the campaign in western Sydney are still unclear, with the likes of Lindsay still in the balance. And that Labor is still in with a chance in Hasluck is remarkable, given the weight of mining industry money that flowed into WA Liberal coffers.

Had the Liberals put in even a competent performance in NSW and WA, they’d now be in government.

Even so, the best part about the result for the Liberals is that, compared to a year ago, when they faced oblivion, this is a superb outcome regardless of whether they form Government or not. They are indeed, as Abbott said last night, back in business.

Peter Fray

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