What should you do when you have been out of the country, your opponent is becoming more popular and it’s the last sitting week of federal Parliament in the Year of the Rabbit?

Well, any sensible politician would set aside the rhetoric, put on a statesman’s hat and present some sound policies. Thinking this, I attended Tony Abbott’s address to The Sydney Institute last night with real enthusiasm, expecting to hear something good. However, what we got was 2010 revisited.

“The Coalition already has many of the policies it needs for the next election because it retains the ones it took to the last election,” the opposition leader said.

“Some will require adjustment to take account of what the government’s done subsequently or tougher fiscal circumstances. Mostly, though, the policies we take to the next election will be refined and developed versions of the policies we took to the last one.”

That would be a brilliant tactic if they had been election-winning policies, but, as the Coalition actually lost the 2010 election, wouldn’t you draft a few new ones? Or do they think that we won’t notice?

Granted, the election is still two years out, but I would like to hear something other than what’s wrong with the other team — Big T is starting to sound like the Reverend Ian Paisley on St Patrick’s Day.

Earlier this month, Anthony Albanese likened Abbo to a “walking vuvuzela” whose constant  uttering of “no, no, no” about government policies made him sound like one of the loud plastic horns used in South Africa during the World Cup.

Last night, to an audience that could have digested a few complex ideas, he blew his horn again, declaring that he was specifically against budget deficits, the carbon tax and the mining tax, and government waste in general.

“A government which can’t be trusted on small spending decisions can’t be trusted with big ones,” he said. “The current government, for instance, recently sold the Parliament House billiards tables for $5000 and then spent $102,500 — I am not making this up — to establish whether this was good value for money.”

It’s a pity as the Rhodes Scholar and former journalist is a very effective communicator. In his 2009 book, Battlelines, he writes lucidly about topics as varied as political philosophy, economic reform, social security and foreign affairs. Could we please have some more of that?

Later in the speech he said he had identified at least $6 billion in spending cuts relating to computers in schools, hospital reforms, the GP super clinics and new set-top boxes, among others. From that: “The Coalition will deliver personal income tax cuts and a fair deal for pensioners without a carbon tax … and we will deliver company tax cuts without a mining tax.”

The opposition leader then said that “the Coalition believes that the first challenge for government is to live within its means — as families and other households do”.

This is the sort of cliche we get from Julia Gillard when she’s trying to sound like the progeny of Welsh coal miners. Where’s the vision?

According to the polls, the Labor Party will lose the 2013 election and the Coalition will win. But in today’s Newspoll, Julia is now ahead of Tony as preferred prime minister. If he wants to avoid another hung parliament, then the opposition leader will have to give Labor and Green voters a solid reason to change sides, and delivering homilies on frugality may not do it.

In conclusion, he brought us back to the government’s most unpopular policies.

“Since becoming opposition leader, I’ve said no’ to a carbon tax because I say ‘yes’ to affordable power,” he said. “I’ve said ‘no’ to a mining tax because I say ‘yes’ to investment and jobs in our strongest industry. I’ve said ‘no’ to mandatory pre-commitment for poker machines because I say ‘yes’ to more effective counselling and ‘yes’ to a less intrusive nanny state.”

And finally: “A stronger economy, better services, more opportunities for work, and more secure borders are all achievable, once a great country has the better government it deserves.”

“Stop the boats!” I was wondering where it had gone.

Peter Fray

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