Labor has, by accident, seemingly found a weakness in Tony Abbott. All it needs to do is take unpopular decisions and it completely confuses him.

The flood levy — lazy, bad, politically motivated policy, although you can’t say that now without being portrayed as heartless bastard bearing a personal grudge against Queenslanders — should have been ideal for Abbott. He is a rare master of attack politics, and has seen off one Prime Minister, and almost a second, with his constant and skilful assaults on policy. The levy played to his pet theme of “great big new taxes”, and it was unpopular, meaning there was fertile ground for him to cultivate.

Instead, Abbott has failed to co-ordinate a coherent attack on the levy beyond simple opposition. There’s an impression he opposes the levy simply because Labor could declare itself in favour of motherhood itself and he’d oppose it. He’s failed to adequately deal with the problem that the Howard government loved a levy or six itself — and not just for large-scale disasters but for looking after its mates in the National Party — and that he’s raring to go with his own paid parental leave levy.

He’s also failed to create adequate space between the floods themselves and his opposition to the levy. There’s a suspicion he’s trying to exploit the government’s response to a colossal natural disaster. And he was badly tripped up yesterday with that email soliciting donations to his campaign against the levy, made all the worse firstly by its timing with a massive cyclone adding to Queensland’s woes, and secondly by his decidedly un-Prime Ministerial ducking of responsibility for it. Kevin Rudd, in contrast, would have “taken full responsibility for it” despite that not meaning anything in practice.

And all that was after polling showing that he’d managed to rub voters the wrong way with his response to the floods, heavily trailing the much-maligned Prime Minister Gillard in terms of perceptions of his response.

What’s happened? It may be no coincidence that the flood levy — wretched policy that it is — is the first time this government has taken a high-profile, genuinely unpopular position on the basis that it is the right thing to do. For three years it spoke about taking tough decisions, while generally bending over backwards to avoid offending anyone. Kevin Rudd was the master of referring to some sort of straw man of opposition to his policies, when he resolutely avoided adopting anything that was genuinely unpopular.

Now it’s standing up and basically saying that if people don’t like the levy, bad luck. In doing so, it looks more like a government than it has for a long time.

Perhaps that’s wrong-footed Abbott, who’s got used to, and got used to exploiting, a government that always took the soft option. And the cyclone has not merely sucked airtime from his “campaign against the levy” that he’d like you to please give generously for, but strengthened the rather slight case for a significant fiscal adjustment to accommodate the recovery effort.

Labor has struggled to lay a glove on Abbott since he became leader, even when he served up prize opportunities to do so. Maybe it will now work out that the sky doesn’t fall in when you take unpopular decisions, as long as you explain them and stick to them. It might even give voters the impression you actually believe in something enough to take risks about it — something Labor hasn’t been in danger of doing for a very long time.

As for Abbott, Liberals have been aware for some time that the approach of constant attack and obstruction was eventually going to wear thin. Maybe it finally has. That commitment to develop some more positive policies this year really can’t come soon enough.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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