Tony Abbott needs a Julia — and right now Treasurer Joe Hockey ain’t it.
One of the problems that Julia Gillard had when she was prime minister was that she had no Julia Gillard backing her up in Parliament. She was an able deputy to Kevin Rudd; Dorothy Dixers to the then-deputy PM induced groans of despair from Coalition ranks; the government lost nothing when she filled in for Kevin 747; she and Lindsay Tanner more than made up for Wayne Swan’s approach as treasurer — as Swan admits in his book, his initial parliamentary performance as treasurer was “fairly ordinary” and he preferred to be analytical rather than go for one-liners (a bit rich coming from the bloke who must have said “sloppy Joe” several hundred times, but anyway). With Tanner gone and Swan her deputy, as prime minister Gillard had to do her own savaging of the opposition, mainly helped by Anthony Albanese.
Now Tony Abbott has the same problem. He has Malcolm Turnbull to call on, but that requires a special NBN Dixer in question time. A wounded Joe Hockey (and Hockey is very wounded following his petrol price own goal) won’t do the government any favours in Parliament, and he needs to get back on top of his game, if only to keep his own job secure.
The improvement in the government’s recent polling may have plateaued, with the two-party preferred voting intention figures in today’s Essential Report shifting to 52%-48% in Labor’s favour. It’s a small shift from 51-49 the last two weeks, and reflects more or less the status quo: the Coalition lost a point in its primary vote (40%), so did Labor (39%), the Greens picked one up (9%), and so did the Palmer United Party (6%). The momentum from MH17 and Tony Abbott’s well-received handling of the tragedy has lifted the government from its post-budget nadir of 54-46, but not enough to regain the lead it lost in March.
On the positive side for the government, however, its two weeks of bungles over first data retention, then, more spectacularly, Hockey’s unusual take on petrol usage and his subsequent apology failed to seriously damage the Coalition.
The lesson of Abbott’s handling of MH17 is that voters like prime ministers who appear as genuinely national leaders, not political leaders. Abbott also benefited from the way the media cycle was focused exclusively on one issue for an extended period of time. Neither are circumstances that can last more than a short period. The media cycle soon returned to the fragmented, rapid-turnover mechanism that makes consistent, clear communication almost impossible; domestic politics requires partisanship, however much voters insist they don’t like it. It was no surprise that “new Tony” claims about a sudden shift from ideology to pragmatism emerged in the wake of MH17, but that was derailed by the likes of Eric Abetz and Joe Hockey saying things that in fact confirmed voters’ suspicions of the Coalition as hard-right ideologues on social and economic issues.
Hockey’s car wreck also came after Abbott’s approval figures had lifted significantly: they’re still bad — he only leads first-term Opposition Leader Bill Shorten by a point as preferred PM less than a year after the election — but not spectacularly bad like they were after the budget. Hockey, in contrast, has gone from heir apparent to also-ran, whose future as Treasurer is being openly discussed by Dennis Shanahan on the front page of the party organ. The problem with Hockey’s grovelling apology on Friday was that it can never be repeated. One more serious stuff-up and that will be the end of the Treasurer, a statement palpably absurd even just a few weeks ago, and still bizarre for a government weeks shy of its first anniversary.