CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Abbott's inroads into Labor's heartland
, May 28, 2011
Opposition leader Tony Abbott is now dominating the federal Parliament in a way which occurs only at rare junctures in Australian politics.
Labor’s backbench is spooked, Julia Gillard is being forced into rash and poorly thought-out decisions such as the “Malaysian solution” to avoid copying him, and Treasurer Wayne Swan spent his post-Budget briefing asking journalists how they expected Tony Abbott would react to it.
Of course, things can change rapidly in politics. Mr Abbott can (and probably will) make a controversial statement or comment which Labor will pounce on to prove his unworthiness to be in politics; the Liberal Party could revert to its undisciplined behaviour of the past; Ms Gillard may regain her confidence; or an unexpected event may turn up to save the government.
But, as things stand today, Mr Abbott has grown into the job as Opposition leader to the point where the public now see him as a real, credible and acceptable person to install as prime minister.
The polls suggest the electorate has made up its collective mind that it doesn’t like a hung parliament, is angry with the NSW rural independents, and likes the Gillard Government even less than the Rudd Government.
And Tony Abbott has risen in stature and authority as a leader.
His Budget-in-Reply speech lifted his standing in the polls and proved devastating for the Government which had been hoping to turn around its fortunes with the actual Budget itself.
In part this is due to Mr Abbott’s self-discipline and growing assuredness; but mostly it is due to the ineptitude of the Government and its inability to understand its opponent.
The theatrics of modern-day parliamentary Question Time has tended to mask a feature of Australian (and Westminster) politics which has applied for many decades — the leader who dominates the Parliament is the leader who emerges victorious at the next election.
It is a battle of policy and debate and character assessment between the two leaders on the floor of the Parliament, and it was the Prime Minister’s task to destroy the credibility of the Opposition leader.
Prime Minister Menzies was able to do this to his opponents with oratory and aplomb, Keating with roughhouse but entertaining debating tactics, Howard with his doggedness and incredible memory for policy detail.
Very occasionally, the process works the other way with the Opposition leader instead dominating the Prime Minister of the day. Gough Whitlam gained the upper hand over William McMahon and, as the 1972 election loomed, the people knew he would be the next prime minister.
Part of Labor’s problem with Mr Abbott has been the underestimating of its opponent. Initially, the Labor team thought it was inconceivable that voters, particularly female voters, could tolerate such an ultra-conservative, unreconstructed male. They even had a name for him: he was the “Mad Monk”.
When voters appeared instead to be accepting of, or even preferring, Mr Abbott’s social views, Ms Gillard switched, cloaking herself fairly unconvincingly in conservative garb.
Now the Government is portraying Mr Abbott as an entirely negative politician, despite having adopted in the Budget his policies, such as funding for mental health and tougher welfare rules and requirements.
Mr Abbott in turn is concentrating on cost-of-living pressures, something that government policies such as the carbon tax will only make worse.
The real problem for the Labor Party is that Mr Abbott actually understands the Labor Party better than many of them do. Having come from a DLP background and having been once courted by the likes of former NSW MP and party great, Johnno Johnson, Mr Abbott has an understanding of the Labor culture.
Many of the Labor parliamentary team are straight careerists with no substantial philosophy or even a deep sense of Labor’s traditions. Confronted with an opponent who has a clear set of political values, they don’t know how to deal with him.
Oddly, Labor is now totally preoccupied with Mr Abbott and is making decisions based on how he will respond. This is a bad way to run a government.
Mr Abbott knows at some point he has to switch from being oppositional to prime ministerial. He will have to articulate a set of policies which are acceptable to the electorate.
It is still far from certain that Mr Abbott will become prime minister, but he is now in such a dominant position against an inept government that he needs to start thinking about the long-term future of the nation, not just short-term politics.