CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
The toughest job in Australian politics
, October 31, 2009
A common misconception, even among senior political analysts, is equating public opinion polling with the internal dynamics and views on leadership inside major political parties.
Hence potential leaders are wildly declared "unelectable" because various opinion polls suggest they are not currently popular.
But inside the party, where politicians strengths and weaknesses are far better understood, so-called "unpopular" MPs can be highly regarded.
Parliamentary leaders are chosen by their colleagues, not by pollsters or opinion-writers. This is particularly true of the Liberal Party, which does not have the same factional fiefdoms which exist in the Labor Party, where potential leaders tend to emerge through the ranks of their own factional base.Underestimated
For example, Dr Brendan Nelson's internal popularity was always underestimated by the media and he surprised many (including Malcolm Turnbull) when he narrowly emerged as Opposition leader after the last election.
Current wisdom among mainstream commentators is that Joe Hockey will succeed in the event that Mr Turnbull quits before the next election.
Reports about internal Liberal Party polling suggest that Mr Turnbull's leadership is close to approaching the "terminal" stage. He himself may step down to save himself the ignominy of a catastrophic defeat.
Mr Hockey is considered by pundits to have gained widespread recognition courtesy of his early morning television appearances on Channel 7's breakfast show Sunrise
. He has an affable nature, which is said to go down well with voters, and has performed reasonably well as shadow treasurer.
He is also articulate, astute and relatively youthful.
On the other hand, Mr Hockey is a libertarian on social issues, and an ideological soul-mate of Mr Turnbull in a party whose conservative stream still predominates.
On climate change, for example, Mr Hockey and Mr Turnbull are on the same wavelength.
Yet, despite all the talk of his being the heir-apparent, Mr Hockey has made it widely known among his colleagues that he has a young family and is far from desperate to take what is becoming a poisoned chalice.
And he tells reporters that he wants Wayne Swan's job, not Kevin Rudd's.
In short, like Peter Costello, Mr Hockey would be a most reluctant candidate should the Opposition leader's job suddenly become vacant in what is certain to be a defeat for the Coalition at the coming election.
Other potential leaders include the highly able Andrew Robb, who has taken time out from politics on health grounds. Julie Bishop has strong voter recognition, but stumbled as shadow treasurer.
Peter Dutton, who is searching in vain for a safe Queensland seat, has been touted as a prospective leader. However, such talk, certainly in the near-term, is exaggerated.
This leaves Tony Abbott, a man described by most in the media as "unelectable".
Certainly, Mr Abbott is not without flaws or detractors. Like John Howard, he is a politician who sharply divides opinion between those who like him and those who don't.
He has a tendency to shoot from the hip; he adopts a pugnacious, often abrasive, style of politics, and an (arguably misguided) belief that any publicity is good publicity.
He has also, in his own words, become the "Captain Catholic" of the Liberal Party.
This is partly because he has been prepared to take a stand on ethical and moral issues which have been sheeted home to his faith.
But also, rather than downplay his early life as a seminarian and other private pre-politics episodes, Mr Abbott has been happy to weave these into his political narrative.
This may have helped differentiate him from other white-bread politicians, but has made him a lightning-rod for sectarian prejudice and an easy target for his opponents in the Labor Party to charges of hypocrisy whenever he lands a telling blow in the Parliament.
On the other hand, Mr Abbott has outstanding qualities of loyalty, intellect and courage. He has a clear political philosophy and is not an economic rationalist zealot. He is a good media performer who is always prepared to put himself on the line.Rough-and-tumble style
Furthermore, it may be argued that Mr Abbott's rough-and-tumble political style may be what is required to nail Kevin Rudd who has enjoyed a relatively easy ride so far in his prime ministership.
In a little known episode about the time the Howard Government was considering sending troops to Iraq, Mr Abbott, a former journalist, asked his Prime Minister if he could go to Iraq to work as a war correspondent.
According to former Cabinet colleagues, Mr Abbott had put the argument that if the Coalition Government was demanding that Australian families were being asked to send their sons to battle Iraq, he could show support by taking time out from his ministerial duties and report from the front.
The Prime Minister apparently rejected the idea as impractical.
Mr Abbott clearly has the strength of character to endure the toughest job in politics, and has the endurance and mettle to withstand the onslaught from the Labor Party. This is despite the likely loss and potential damage to his political career.
And despite current media reporting on the Liberal leadership, his parliamentary colleagues may be starting to come to the same conclusion.