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Nov 14, 2012

Don’t write Tony Abbott off yet. But if you do …

Tony Abbott only a limited time to turn around his poor personal polling numbers, in order to blitz the election. Is his leadership in trouble?

So what is the size of the Abbott Discount? How much is the presence of Tony Abbott as leader weighing down the Liberal vote? And in what circumstances would his colleagues move to dump him?

Well it’s not that simple, and here’s why.

Labor’s, and Julia Gillard’s, recovery in the polls has been the story of the last three to four months. It has coincided both with the barely-noticed introduction of the carbon price and with a significantly more disciplined performance by Labor, which has at least for now lost its habit of shooting itself in the foot at least once a month.

The Prime Minister has also benefited from a virtuous circle: the better she has looked in the polls, the more assured her performance has been, and the less impact her critics have had. Kevin Rudd is now a virtual fixture in the media, but no one is talking about him replacing the Prime Minister. Directly or indirectly critical tomes from Lindsay Tanner and Maxine McKew have come and gone. This week, Gillard moved swiftly to establish the institutional child abuse royal commission, then went to Perth to catch up with Hillary Clinton.

Meantime, Abbott has been enduring another round of bad personal polls and saying bizarre things about one of his own MPs. The contrast between them is being reflected in her growing lead as preferred prime minister.

But Labor is still not back to where it was when our current political cycle began: February 2011, after the government announced its intention to adopt a carbon price. From the 2010 election through until that point, the parties had been locked together in the polls. The carbon price announcement smashed that deadlock, sending Labor, and the Prime Minister’s, polling plummeting. After more than 20 months, only now is Labor limping back to where things were at the start of last year. So Abbott’s supposedly poor position has to be seen in context.

But many observers, and a few MPs outside the Rudd camp, thought there was no way the Prime Minister could recover (nor did I, I readily admit). And yet, Labor suddenly looks competitive again. Moreover, it can reflect on a positive agenda. It has bedded down the carbon price, put in place a punitive solution for asylum seekers (criticism of which is confined to the media and commentariat, and certainly not shared by voters), and signed up for a big picture agenda — education, disability, Asian century — that has coloured in the space where people used to wonder what the government stood for. It has also, finally, drawn a bead on Abbott, successfully identifying him as a man who has a serious problem with women.

The only response from the Coalition and its media cheerleaders has been to complain about unfair personal attacks, smear Gillard and suggest there’s a looming budget crisis. Asking questions about the AWU in 1995 and insisting Tony’s a lovely chap after all isn’t going to get them to August, although it will probably be the only thing we get from The Oz until then.

Abbott can turn his bad numbers around. Gillard turned around even worse numbers. But he has less time to do so. It took around 18 months for the Prime Minister to reverse the negative tide caused by the carbon price. Abbott has just over nine months until the election, but probably less given we’re already drifting into the summer politics-free zone. In any event, he needs to use summer to recalibrate his strategy and give voters some broad impressions of a positive Abbott agenda. That’s not to suggest there are timelines or hurdles that he must somehow meet: remember how often pretty much everyone in the press gallery has set Gillard a “crucial test” which she seems to have moved past without too much difficulty.

He might also benefit from some more Labor mistakes — but Labor’s initial response to Abbott was to wait for him to stumble, and he never did, at least not in a way that damaged him with voters. The Coalition brains trust should assume Gillard has now hit her stride as PM, and take any Labor stuff-ups as a bonus.

On the other hand, when Abbott is being Abbott, as he was yesterday, and saying ridiculous things that suggested Ken Wyatt somehow isn’t the real deal when it comes to Aboriginal politicians — core and non-core Aboriginal MPs, perhaps? — he starts to seem only one major gaffe away from becoming a figure of ridicule whom even News Ltd will start undermining.

At which point, it becomes a question of Joe or Malcolm. Turnbull would deliver victory, most certainly, but like Kevin Rudd the electoral popularity is offset by the long list of casualties and enemies accumulated the first time around as leader. Joe Hockey has performed the thankless task of being shadow Treasurer in a miracle economy with some skill, and turned around perceptions that he is a lightweight. But whether he can deliver victory against Gillard is a mystery. For a party that has, against the advice of its leader, taken victory for granted for so long, the choice may not be a difficult one, however much Turnbull drives colleagues mad.

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38 comments

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38 thoughts on “Don’t write Tony Abbott off yet. But if you do …

  1. zut alors

    ‘ Joe Hockey has performed the thankless task of being shadow Treasurer in a miracle economy with some skill, and turned around perceptions that he is a lightweight.’

    Whaaaat, when did this happen? I must’ve missed that episode.

  2. Peter Ormonde

    “But many observers…thought there was no way the Prime Minister could recover (nor did I, I readily admit).”

    You don’t have to admit it Mr K – we remember. But we forgive you.

    Locked away in the Press Gallery down there surrounded by pundits, polls, precognition and prediction one can be lured into the delusion that one actually knows what’s going on out here – even worse, what will go on in future.

    Thank heavens Gillard has given her poll-enslaved spin jigglers the flick and has started just doing the right thing. Carr is doing the job on the Right they have their own issues anyway, at least in NSW.

    Simple really. This is how one regains popular support, not by following polls or the Press Gallery’s exhortations. If they were any good at it – they’d be in cabinet at least.

    But you’re doing it again Bernard – making rash assertions and predictions – when you say “Abbott can turn his bad numbers around.” History and precedent is no guide. Not easy to re-invent yourself when you have staked the Coalition’s entire strategy on automatic negativity, photo opportunities and slogans. Tony has really painted them into a corner with very little wiggle room.

    How does an Opposition leader “do the right thing “? What can they actually “do”? They can only tap the climate of complaint.

    Without the enthusiastic marketing effort of the meeja, without the odd policy or principle, the Coalition is entirely dependent on Tony’s “charisma”, style and persona.

    Now this is precisely the same personality and charisma that saw the Coalition effectively write itself out of negotiations to form government after the 2010 ballot.

    I suspect that the Libs are too far gone, too lazy, too scared, to be developing a new strategy based on someone else so we’ll probably be seeing something like “Tony, Tony, Tony” as the slogan for the next election.

    But if not – I doubt it will be the Hockster or Malcolm – too much baggage for the latter, too many clownish gaffs for the former (and Tony casts a long shadow over him).

    I’d be putting a small wager on a roughy… a woman, a clean-skin, young, photogenic and eminently credentialled by focus groups … yes, the appalling Kelly O’Dwyer. Get good odds at the moment. But heck no one in the Press Gallery would be backing her so what would I know?

    Either way I’m booking a holiday somewhere suitably foreign without media for the entire campaign period. You should too.

  3. Barry Tucker

    It seems Mr Keane has given away some of his independence. In this article he glosses over a few things and ignores some others, producing something that is too favourable towards the PM. Those who are following the national debate closely will know what I mean.

    Having just paid almost $200 for a subscription to this supposedly independent publication, I hope Mr Keane will get back to the incisive and balanced commentary he is known for.

  4. zac spitzer

    I doubt Tony Abbott will last last long enough to be the butt of Carbon Tax jokes at the Melbourne Comedy Festival

  5. paddy

    Lulz. Bernard, you were doing fine till we got to Joe Hockey turning around perceptions that he’s a lightweight.

    To be fair, I doubt Joe is half as silly as the nonsense he regularly spouts for the camera. But he still manages to give the *perception* that he couldn’t run a corner milk bar.
    I suspect it’s a bit late in the electoral cycle for the Libs to slot him in as leader and let him come up with a few realistic policies. The delicate dance required to ditch the toxic legacy of Abbott’s last few years, makes Julia’s about turn on carbon pricing look trivial in comparison.
    So it’s probably going to come down to just how much the Libs still loathe Turnbull.
    Despite his smooth lines and undoubted oratorical skills, he wasn’t exactly a roaring success at hearding the dinosaurs last time.

  6. paddy

    (sigh)Seems I’m also useless at herding=hearding words

  7. Clytie

    “put in place a punitive solution for asylum seekers (criticism of which is confined to the media and commentariat, and certainly not shared by voters)”

    Definitely shared by this voter, her family, her friends and acquaintances, both online and off. Check your sources.

  8. DonM

    “a punitive solution for asylum seekers (criticism of which is confined to the media and commentariat, and certainly not shared by voters)”

    Bernard, is this assessment really fair?

    Amnesty International staff arrive on Nauru in coming days. Are they and their many members “just” the commentariat? Sure, the number of voters who oppose offshore processing is far from a majority. But so was the number of voters who supported Aboriginal rights in the 1950s / the number of voters who opposed the White Australia policy when it was in place.

    I, for one, do not believe that government policy is driven by compassion and concern about deaths at sea. Instead, much as deaths at sea have been appalling, I think other political calculations are driving this.

    Do you agree?

    And if so, doesn’t this whole policy area with its “children overboard”, its dark victories, its dark political calculations, its double standards (concern for Cornelia Rau but what about people of colour fleeing war zines in countries where Australia is at war… etc etc) and all deserve greater scrutiny?

  9. CHRISTOPHER DUNNE

    Three word slogans aren’t a substitute for policy?

    Who knew?

    The reality of the carbon price was always going to catch up with Abbott, and just as the public got over the GST pretty quickly so his strategy was the shortest of short sightedness one could conjure.

    Pity the NBN is a bit behind schedule, because that’s another thing the public will more than warm to when they actually get it, that is.

    I’ve never doubted Gillard could play the long game to Tony’s ‘instant gratification’ of trying to bring the government down. But I’ll admit the odd moments of despair that it all looked way to easy for the LOTO, what with Murdoch and friends giving him a free pass. But as we saw in the US, Murdoch’s immense power can come to nothing, and it might well come a cropper here too.

  10. zut alors

    Christopher Dunne, my suburb in South Brisbane has fibre-optic cable and the locals love it. If the rest of Oz suspected how good the NBN is they’d fall about laughing every time the (otherwise sensible) Malcolm T talks it down.

    We can thank KRudd for this innovation. Ironically I don’t believe his own suburb of Norman Park has been cabled for fibre-optic yet.

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