CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Can the Abbott-Joyce duo defeat Kevin Rudd?
, February 6, 2010
Tony Abbott's elevation to the Liberal Party leadership and Barnaby Joyce's appointment as Opposition finance spokesman has given the Coalition much-needed stability, and the long-suffering rusted-on conservative supporters confidence that the next election will at least be competitive.
However, the reality is that while the base Coalition vote might be being recaptured, the Abbott-Joyce team are a long way from moving the swinging voters who will decide the coming poll.
The coming six months will decide whether the pair have the ability to move beyond the base.
Senator Joyce, of course, is still only the Nationals Senate leader, but by sheer force of personality and being a media "talent", he has thrust himself onto centre stage of federal politics.
Whether he remains Senate leader or is elevated to his party's top job is now largely immaterial.
The finance role gives Joyce the ability to hone his accountant skills and to oversee all Opposition policies, and crucially puts him in a position where he can have a major say on whether to approve or cut policy proposals according to their merits.
Nationals leader Warren Truss, a decent and able former Howard Government minister, has had to accept the reality that Joyce is popular among party members and has also become the go-to man for the national media on so many issues. Mr Truss probably also knows that this coming election will be his last, so he unlikely to be a minister again.
But it is also to Truss's great credit that he has never publicly derided Joyce's maverick role, despite the Queensland senator's ability to constantly grab the media limelight.
Joyce's decisions to cross the floor and speak out against some Coalition policies have been a source of aggravation; but in the end all Nationals MPs were forced to acknowledge that Senator Joyce managed almost single-handedly to turn around the Rudd Government's emissions trading scheme debate through a simple message that it was a tax on everything.
Eventually, even Mr Abbott fell into line and this helped him secure the Liberal leadership from Malcolm Turnbull.
On the other hand, the Rudd Government now has Joyce in its sights.
Joyce's populist style of politics has widespread appeal in regional Australia and the Government will be out to tear him down.
Already, they are questioning Joyce's bona fides as a responsible finance spokesman and his criticisms of government spending and debt.
There are also likely to be policy clashes between Joyce and the Liberals, and some potential intra-Coalition fighting as the Nationals seek to expand their dwindling representation in the House of Representatives.
The ETS debate came close to splitting the Coalition and, if there is warring over possible three-cornered contests, tensions between the Coalition partners will break out again.
Tony Abbott, by contrast, has surprised the Government with a disciplined and measured approach to his Opposition leader's job.
Many Rudd ministers had quietly predicted that Abbott's reputation as the "mad monk" would break out. In other words, Abbott would be wanting to foist his "ultra-conservative (religious) views" on the electorate and would not have the self-discipline for the job, according to cynics inside Labor.
However, Abbott has shown good political instincts by choosing issues over the quiet summer period, such as citizenship, a green army to fix environmental problems, Aboriginal rights to free enterprise and self-determination in Queensland, and border control.
All these issues will resonate in conservative Australia and will reassure Liberal and Nationals voters that there will be at least a philosophical difference between the two major parties, as opposed to Mr Turnbull who appeared to want to drag the Coalition closer to Labor.
The key for Mr Abbott will be how he performs in the Parliament against Kevin Rudd and what policies the Opposition can devise which will appeal to middle Australia.
The Government is vulnerable on policy inaction, particularly in health. It also has to wind back the deficit and outline its response to tricky issues on tax and superannuation raised by two of the dozens of reviews it has commissioned.
But voters are also going to cut the Rudd Government a lot of slack for its handling of the global financial crisis.
Australia has so far escaped the worst side-effects of the GFC, with the mildest of recessions.
The cash handouts from last year and the schools building program will not be forgotten by voters.
It will take some major stumbles by the Rudd Government and a consummate policy performance by the Abbott-Joyce duo for the Opposition to pull off a miracle at the next election.