CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
How Labor plans to destroy Tony Abbott
, October 30, 2010
To some degree Tony Abbott got off lightly at the recent election.
Because the Labor Party was pre-occupied by internal infighting, spooked by leaks, overwhelmed by a totally chaotic campaign operation, and blinded by its own prejudices towards Mr Abbott, Labor barely laid a glove on the Opposition leader.
Mr Abbott was instead able to steer his own course through the campaign and, in doing so, to garner some respect from the Australian people for his grittiness, focus and resilience.
But for a handful of seats in western Sydney (Lindsay and Greenway) and in Victoria (Corangamite and La Trobe), which the Liberal Party should have won or held, Mr Abbott would have won the election.
The Labor Party underestimated Mr Abbott's political skills, his discipline and his determination to win.
This won't happen again.
Julia Gillard herself was inexperienced as leader, but is highly capable and will improve her skills over time. Labor now knows Mr Abbott is a serious opponent and will continue to be a formidable Opposition leader.
Ms Gillard also knows that the task ahead for her and the Labor Government will be to attempt to tear Mr Abbott down, and the signs are there that a "no-holds-barred" approach is already being deployed.
The sneaky dissemination of information that Mr Abbott had declined a joint visit to Afghanistan with the Prime Minister in order to attend a British Conservative Party convention certainly hurt Mr Abbott.
The leaking wasn't helped by Mr Abbott's excuse to the media, when he was asked about his decision, that he wanted to avoid jet lag.
This was portrayed by Labor as Mr Abbott putting his political networking ahead of his concerns about the troops.
It was later revealed that Mr Abbott had intended to visit the troops in Afghanistan on his return from the UK, but had been unable to explain this because of security reasons.
The insult was compounded by the release of pictures of Mr Abbott shooting weapons in Afghanistan - for which he was accused in the media of seeking cheap publicity and acting like a cowboy - when in fact he had been asked to do so by senior military in order to get a better understanding of the capability of the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan.
Mr Abbott described Labor and Ms Gillard's tactics as a "low act of bastardry".
But he should expect more of the same.
With such a narrow margin and the theoretical possibility of an early election being forced on the government at any time, Labor believes it has no choice but to wage an ongoing attack on Mr Abbott's credibility and encourage disillusionment and frustration among the ranks of the Coalition.
The Labor Party knows there are people in the Liberal Party waiting for Mr Abbott to make a mistake so they can begin to undermine him.
Life is never comfortable for an Opposition leader, but is particularly tough after an election defeat and the prospect of three more years of powerlessness and reactive politics.
However, there are also opportunities for Mr Abbott.
The radical push to shut down millions of hectares of productive farmland in the Murray-Darling Basin, for questionable environmental benefit, will affect many more people than the towns and communities along the rivers.
A Labor/Greens plan to gradually turn the country back to nature is environmentalism gone mad. Every Australian is going to feel the pain of this policy as it impacts on Australia's balance of payments, food security and food prices.
Similarly, the Prime Minister has decided that Labor has to revisit the push to introduce a carbon impost on the Australian people, be it in the form of an ETS or a carbon tax. Combined with what is now a de facto
federal/state Labor ban on the construction of new power stations, electricity prices can only go in one direction.
Second, some Coalition policies at the last election were underdone or poorly prepared. Mr Abbott's new-look front bench has the chance to develop improved and imaginative policies across a range of issues, including family assistance (including for stay-at-home parents), broadband, industry, childcare, tax, health and defence (where Labor is expected to cut back).
The Opposition leader himself needs to develop a depth of knowledge in areas he is currently weak on, including foreign policy, This should include a long-term strategy on dealing with China (and, to a lesser extent, India) over the coming decades.
Prime Minister Gillard herself is weak on foreign policy issues and a co-operative working relationship on this front between herself and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is not likely.
Labor has a host of policy dilemmas where it is going to find itself in conflict with its sister party, the Greens, in the alliance holding the government together.
Mr Abbott should prepare himself for a rough time over the coming year or two, but if he wants to survive he has to ignore the attacks and get on with the business of preparing and training his team as if it were an incoming government.