There are a couple of explanations as to why Tony Abbott couldn’t quite get there. And it’s less about whether they are true, and more about whether they should be true.

It does appear that Abbott just couldn’t adjust fast enough from a brilliant campaign based on relentless negativity and running on a platform that contained nothing positive of any substance, to a changed political environment requiring more positive policies. Mock this as the “new paradigm” if you like — some journalists seem to have a particular scepticism for the idea that anything could substantially change in politics — but Abbott’s aggressive, brawling style seemed ill-suited for dealing with the independents, right from his speech late on the night of 21 August when he appeared to all but claim victory, through his recalcitrance over the costings issue, and his strange reluctance to try to negotiate, or require Warren Truss to negotiate, any sort of arrangement with Tony Crook to match the deals with the Greens and Andrew Wilkie that gave Julia Gillard the appearance of momentum.

Gillard, as she and Wayne Swan have pointed out, is a more consensual politician, and she has the track record of working with the Senate cross-benches to prove it. No Penny Wong, is our Prime Minister.

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If not the full story, it certainly merits being true, since for all Abbott’s tactical brilliance, economically Labor’s record over the last three years has been far superior to the rubbish served up under successive leaders by the Coalition.

One also wonders whether, having performed so far beyond the expectations of nine months ago, Abbott simply wasn’t as desperate as Labor, which faced a rare first-term loss. You also wonder where some of the Coalition heavyhitters have been over the last two weeks. If Labor could produce a consigliere like Bruce Hawker to work with the independents, where was Nick Minchin or a friendlier face like Tim Fischer?

And the author of the decision to pad the Opposition’s costings with spurious savings — including breaking Charter of Budget Honesty rules — can take some blame for pushing the independents further away.

But that is an aside that obscures the fact that Abbott has, in the face of a bitterly-divided party and a dominant government, simply started shooting, knocked off a PM and came within a whisker of winning government, a remarkable achievement that every politician should examine closely — particularly Labor politicians. A few Crikey readers yesterday appeared cranky about any recognition of Abbott’s performance, but that’s to remain in denial about the effectiveness of his tactics and his prosecution of them, regardless of what you think of his policy content.

The real villains, for the Coalition, are the Nationals. Quite apart from anything else, they let Tony Crook wander around giving the impression Abbott couldn’t rely on his vote, undermining the Coalition’s case for stable government so much that the independents had to stop and ask for confirmation about his status. But yesterday was a National Party failure decades in the making.

Windsor holds a former Nationals leader’s seat. So does Oakeshott. Katter, who when invited to comment on Warren Truss yesterday proceeded to excoriate him, was a former Bjelke-Petersen minister. They represent National Party heartland.

Their success in extracting billions of dollars in new and redirected funding from the Government (and yes, Katter got some too even though he didn’t agree to support Labor) is an achievement that the Nationals could have extracted from the Liberals at most elections in recent decades — rare is the Coalition victory that would have enabled the the Liberals to govern in their own right. Yet they haven’t.

Instead, the Nationals look like the compliant rump of the Liberal Party, unable to stick to their guns enough to secure real funding for rural and regional services, obsessed with old-fashioned porkbarrelling rather than genuine improvements for regional communities.

Now they’ve ended up costing the Liberals a chance to pull off an historic win.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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