CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
The new Opposition team
, December 26, 2009
It is going to take Kevin Rudd a few months to get Tony Abbott focussed in his crosshairs.
Mr Rudd needs time to find the new Opposition leader's weaknesses, to let him make mistakes and to gauge public reaction to a Liberal Party which has swung from being a lukewarm version of Labor under Malcolm Turnbull back to the socially conservative ideology which served John Howard well for more than a decade.
Liberal surprise wins in the recent Bradfield and Higgins by-elections suggest that Mr Abbott may be more attractive electorally than he has so far been given credit for. On the other hand, the results may have had more to do with the sensible decision to ditch support for Labor's Emissions Trading Scheme tax.
The Prime Minister had been hoping to trounce the Coalition at the coming election in order to set Labor up for another two terms and provide the buffer needed for the tough decisions that are inevitably to come. This may yet happen if Labor assumptions that the "ultra-conservative" Abbott brand is like electoral rat poison turn out to be true. But a more likely outcome, particularly if Labor insists on keeping its ETS policy, is that Mr Rudd will be in for a competitive election.
Senior Labor Party strategists had been primed to fight an election against Mr Turnbull, and had prepared war games in the event of a switch to the more amiable Joe Hockey. But Mr Abbott's elevation has taken them by surprise. Mr Abbott's political style will be much harder to counter. He is more spontaneous, saying what he thinks rather than what focus groups tell him he should say, and he is prepared to be an alternative rather than an echo.
Labor thinks Mr Abbott is vulnerable on the basis of his public identification and defence of his Catholic beliefs and his views on abortion and other ethical issues. They also believe there is a perception of double standards for an MP who parades himself as a Catholic, but is also one of the most pugnacious MPs in the Parliament.
Putting aside the proposition that all Christian MPs must be meek and mild in the public domain, Mr Abbott himself is well aware, courtesy of his own daughter, that he has acquired the image of a "lame, gay, churchy loser". The problem for Labor though is that there is an even more prominent "lame, gay, churchy loser" in Australian politics — and he is living in the Lodge.
Asked about his mixing of politics and religion by one reporter, Mr Abbott retorted that at least he does not do doorstop interviews outside church on Sundays.Frontbench appointments
Mr Abbott has also received widespread criticism for selecting a "back to the future" frontbench, and for the appointment of the Queensland Nationals maverick Barnaby Joyce as his finance spokesman.
In fact, Abbott's new team is a good mix of youth and experience, is inclusive of both the conservative and so-called "moderate" wings of the Liberal Party. Importantly, Abbott's new team includes a number of politically aggressive MPs such as Sophie Mirabella (industry and innovation), Scott Morrison (immigration), and Eric Abetz (industrial relations).
Rather than co-opting "failed" Howard frontbenchers, as alleged by commentators, the restoration of Bronwyn Bishop (seniors), Kevin Andrews (families), and Philip Ruddock (into the overseer role of shadow Cabinet secretary) are canny appointments.
Ms Bishop knows the pitfalls of the politics of the elderly better than anyone, having had to take the rap for the "kerosene baths" scandal early during the Howard Government. But as the first baby-boomers retire, Ms Bishop will be an indefatigable defender of the nation's burgeoning senior citizens.
Mr Andrews bravely led the charge against Mr Turnbull, and his reinstatement to the frontbench is long overdue. Forced to become a scapegoat for WorkChoices and the Mohammed Haneef Affair, Mr Andrews' unflappable style and social policy expertise will be a better fit in his new families role.
Mr Abbott has also kept leading "Turnbullites" George Brandis and Christopher Pyne in their current senior roles, while Senator Marise Payne, a long-time factional adversary but also a talented MP, has been promoted. Others who voted for Turnbull out of personal loyalty, such as NSW conservative Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, were also given promotions.
And political chameleon Greg Hunt is to keep his environment brief, rebadged as "climate action". Mr Hunt, who was once a fierce exponent of an ETS, is now likely to be pushing the virtues of renewables.
Finally, Mr Abbott's choice of Senator Barnaby Joyce as shadow spokesman for finance has become a lightning-rod for Labor criticism. More than any other MP, the plain-speaking but idiosyncratic Senator Joyce swung the ETS debate inside the Coalition by identifying it as "a great big tax on everything" and a political opportunity for the Coalition rather than a handicap.
Labor knows he is now the most dangerous MP in the Opposition, which is why they will come after him, particularly when he questions economic rationalist shibboleths such as free trade with China. Senator Joyce got a taste of what is to come when he declared his opposition to Chinese Government companies being allowed to buy up Australian mining assets, and by questioning the US Government's ability to pay its way out of debt, which could trigger a possible "economic Armageddon".
Labor immediately attacked, accusing Senator Joyce of spreading far-right conspiracy theories and "whacko economics".
Interestingly, another brilliant interlocutor, former PM Paul Keating, expressed an almost identical view on the possibility of a US default in his first interview as commentator on ABC's Lateline
program (February 2, 2009). "You'll start to see (it) in the price of gold, if this goes on for a couple more years, the real serious question of an American default, a default by the United States Treasury," Mr Keating told Tony Jones. Mr Keating added that parts of Europe were also facing sovereign risk.
No one has yet accused the former "world's greatest treasurer" of being a conspiracy theorist.