Something that’s become apparent over recent weeks is how much Tony Abbott has relied on Labor’s long habit of presenting him with blunders to exploit. He’s dined on them with relish, on the carbon price and the Prime Minister’s pre-election commitment, on asylum seekers, on Labor’s internal tensions. But it seems he became addicted to them. And now they’re in considerably shorter supply.

Since the start of July, when the carbon price started, Labor’s limited but clear recovery in the polls began and the government called on Angus Houston and friends to pull together a solution on asylum seekers, the government’s once sublime capacity for damaging stumbles has been curtailed.

The result is that politics has become harder for Abbott. Indeed, it has been Abbott, and other enemies of the Prime Minister, who have been stumbling. The plainest example, of course, was Alan Jones. But don’t forget The Australian stuffing up in its smear campaign over the Slater and Gordon issue in August, which allowed Julia Gillard to get on the front foot; the only trace of the campaign after she’d finished with it was Hedley Thomas bleating that no one in the press gallery had followed up his brilliant journalism.

Moreover, the PM used it to draw attention to the misogynist nature of the campaign being run against her online. There’s a number to bear in mind on that. Some weeks ago we asked Essential Research to find out how people felt about whether Gillard, and female politicians generally, copped more criticism than male politicians. The question revealed a huge gender gap. Sixty one per cent of women thought the PM received more criticism than a male PM would, compared to 42% of men.

That gap is one of those don’t-get-it things. Many men remain blind to the casual s-xism that women deal with constantly, the double standards, the different assumptions, the easy dismissal of things men, used to workplaces and cultures perfectly suited to their own needs, deem to be trivial. It blinds them to what is routinely dished out to women that they themselves would never tolerate.

The PM wasn’t complaining about it; if one thing is clear, Gillard is resilient; the woman has endured a trial by political fire for the past 18 months, but it was significant that she drew attention to it. And women, it seems, agree with her.

“That Abbott has been forced to resort today to using his wife in a kind of ‘some of my best friends are women’ campaign is testimony to what sort of toxic feedback the Liberals must be getting about Abbott’s political style from female voters.”

Then there have been Abbott’s own errors, most obviously the notorious 7.30 interview. Saliently, that stumble was around his attempt to blame the government over the scaling back of mining investment occasioned by lower commodity prices, derived from Chinese demand and, indirectly, Europe’s continuing woes. He stumbled on that again yesterday, while endorsing David Murray’s asinine analysis that we were in Greece-like danger.

Unlike Joe Hockey, who has matured into a credible shadow Treasurer, it’s hard to recall a single moment when Abbott has offered us the comfort of indicating he has a basic grasp of economics.

And for such a smart media performer, Abbott seems to have difficulty grasping just how quickly the news cycle now moves. He was left flat-footed by Malcolm Turnbull’s response to Cory Bernardi and looked like a follower rather than a leader when he moved hours later to sack the South Australian extremist for “indiscipline” — an outcome rather reminiscent of Al Capone getting done for tax evasion (doubtless that comparison will make it into Bernardi’s next YouTube whinge).

Then Turnbull again beat him to the punch last Sunday morning. Abbott’s eventual response on Jones was mealy-mouthed, and substantially toughened a day later, but that wasn’t the point. Even on a weekend, there are now multiple media cycles; Turnbull weighed in early on the story, which, after being aired on Twitter last week, broke in the MSM on Saturday night. He didn’t need to issue a press release, or give an interview — a single early-morning tweet did the job. Abbott’s clumsy “out of line” comments six hours later allowed Labor, right up to the Deputy PM, to mock him all day as waiting for Jones’ approval before he spoke.

Jones’ own error was, politically, less his offensive remarks, half-arsed apology and inevitable retreat into affronted victimhood, than to serve up an example of what Labor has been trying to get across about Tony Abbott and Liberals under him. Labor has been hell-bent on pinning the charge of aggressive, macho, personal political debate on Abbott, and here was a perfect example right from a key mentor of the Opposition Leader.

That Abbott has been forced to resort today to using his wife in a kind of “some of my best friends are women” campaign is testimony to what sort of toxic feedback the Liberals must be getting about Abbott’s political style from female voters.

Now, in the past, by this point Labor would have long since ridden cavalry-like to Abbott’s aid by embarrassing its leader or having an unseemly brawl. And, true, of late Kevin Rudd and Lindsay Tanner have selflessly volunteered to charge into the fray and distract from the focus on Abbott. But neither had a lasting impact. Moreover, Gillard’s eloquent reply to Jones was a couple of days of dignified silence. Perhaps the message that less is more is getting through at the PMO.

That leaves Michael Williamson and the continuing sordid saga of the HSU as the main Labor shemozzle for Abbott to play with. But Abbott’s own hits have kept coming. Alby Schultz, of whom, one suspects, we’ll be hearing more of between now and his departure from politics at the next election, also made life difficult for his leader by shining a light yet again on divisions between the economic illiterates of the Nationals and the rest of the rational universe.

Abbott was quizzed on Schultz yesterday at a doorstop, and offered his usual talking point answer, recited directly from those daily bulletins Crikey was being leaked for a while. “The Coalition supports deregulation but we’ve got to do it the right way, not the wrong way. We need to have a managed and orderly transition to a fully deregulated yada yada incompetence and untrustworthiness, etc.”

For most of the past two years, Abbott would have got away with that, especially at a doorstop in suburban Melbourne. But the journalist who quizzed him was having none of it. What about Schultz, they demanded. Abbott began with the same talking point, but was cut off. What about Schultz? “Well, you should not leap to conclusions about what anyone is going to do,” Abbott feebly offered, then tried to switch back to the talking points. The journalist pushed straight back onto Schultz. “There are obviously a range of different views here,” Abbott offered, then, in the manner of a desperate conversationalist inquiring “hot enough for you?”, turned to blaming the carbon price.

Next question was about David Murray. After he’d finished endorsing Murray’s lunatic view that we’re the next Greece, he was asked about Peter Slipper. He offered a talking point, then was asked four more times to give a real answer, including the mocking question “So you don’t have a point of view, Tony Abbott?” And that on an issue that should be a gimme for the Coalition.

It never used to be like this, not for Tony Abbott. The game has shifted, and he needs to catch up.

Peter Fray

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