Forget John Howard’s famous quip. Queensland Labor is Lazarus with a full cardiopulmonary transplant. Its comeback in Queensland from just three years ago, when it was reduced to single figures in an historic rout, to the verge of government is a stunning outcome.
It had help, of course, most particularly from Campbell Newman. “They hate the cunt, and the more they saw of him the more they hated him,” one Labor figure said of fellow Queenslanders. Newman’s attempt to slink off to a summer holiday win based on saying “strong” over and over has ended in catastrophe.
And if not the direct cause, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is the lethal dose of background radiation that is crippling the conservative cause. First in South Australia, where Jay Weatherill pulled off a remarkable win to doom the South Australian Liberals to an umpteenth term in opposition. Then in Victoria, where Labor’s strategy to link Napthine and Abbott paid dividends. Now in Queensland. Governments being chucked out after one term — once almost trivia question-level rare in Australian politics — has become an accepted part of the political landscape, thanks to Abbott.
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The Prime Minister himself has gone from “troubled” to “terminal”, with the briefest of stops at “beleaguered”, in a matter of days. The polling is diabolical: 57-43 in the News Corp tabloids yesterday, the sort of numbers Brendan Nelson managed against a rampant newly minted Kevin Rudd in 2008. Today 54-46 in Fairfax. Last week’s Essential poll had Labor ahead 54-46, but that was off a fortnightly rolling average — the two-party preferred result for that week was 55-45, and not likely to improve in tomorrow’s edition.
The discussion has thus moved from whether to dump Abbott (and Joe Hockey, but everyone’s simply assumed that to be the case) to what’s the best combination to replace him — Julie and Malcolm, or Malcolm and Julie. The problem with the Malcolm and Julie option is that you need a treasurer as well. Scott Morrison is being mooted as treasurer in that scenario — Morrison of the relentless ambition, aggressive rhetoric and obsession with hiding information from the media and voters that borders on criminal. A better option would be Andrew Robb, who as Trade Minister has performed strongly, albeit in negotiating a number of essentially economically meaningless “free trade” deals. Robb has the background and substance to make a success of Treasury, and the standing to placate the Right of the party.
Meantime, Abbott will attempt to mount an unlikely recovery at the National Press Club today. By the time you read this, the relative success or otherwise of that address will probably be apparent. If the reaction is “is that it?”, Abbott might as well travel back to Parliament House in a tumbril. Expectations are now so high that anything less than a complete, John Howard 1997-style agenda reset will be perceived as a letdown, and would further accelerate the momentum to remove him.
That’s why the occasion is going to be used to theatrically bury Abbott’s already long-dead “signature” paid parental leave scheme (which will be another broken promise, but one no one wants him to keep). But that’s no longer anywhere near enough. Thus there’s talk of a family and childcare package — but the problem with that is that anything that looks like throwing money at voters both clashes with the dominant agenda of fiscal restraint, and looks desperate (remember, throwing money at voters didn’t help John Howard in his last term). That will be cobbled together with more attempts to exploit terrorism. But without a big surprise, “is that it?” is likely to be the reaction.
In any event, Abbott could probably deliver the Australian equivalent of the Gettysburg Address and still end up out of a job by the end of the week. We now live in a world of one-term governments and prime ministers and premiers dispatched in their first terms. What was once politically unthinkable is now part of everyone’s mental furniture. It’s a world Abbott helped create as opposition leader and now as prime minister. And as the good book says, whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.