November 26th 2011

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Articles from this issue:

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Same-sex "marriage": litmus test for Gillard

CANBERRA OBSERVED: The hurdles Abbott faces in the coming months

EDITORIAL: India: Australia's strategic partner

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Rising inequality generating global social unrest

SPECIAL FEATURE: Alan Jones' vision for unlocking Australia's potential


EUROPEAN UNION: A way out for Europe, but not for the euro

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Taiwan faces risk of demographic collapse

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: China builds trade links with Taiwan

EDUCATION: School funding and the politics of envy

LABOR HISTORY: Bob Carr blasts Dr Evatt over 1950s Labor Split

OPINION: Bob Katter should never have left the National Party


CINEMA: A Blackadder parody of Tudor history

BOOK REVIEW Terminal decline of the West?

BOOK REVIEW A missing chapter on Australia's colonial origins

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The hurdles Abbott faces in the coming months

by national correspondent

News Weekly, November 26, 2011

There are two interpretations of Tony Abbott’s current predicament as Opposition leader — both are poles apart but both place him at a critical juncture in terms of his political future.

The first view, and one which is largely being pushed by the Government, is that Mr Abbott is heading into the most precarious period of his time as Opposition leader.

It is suggested that he will need to keep his nerve or his colleagues with most to lose from an Abbott prime ministership will seize their last chance to depose him.

It is also suggested that, having failed to stop the carbon tax, Mr Abbott is going to be left stranded and will have to eventually succumb to accepting the tax as a fait accompli.

Certainly, like a retreating army facing a great defeat, the Gillard Government has left plenty of booby-traps and landmines along the way for anyone who dares to destroy the tax.

Mr Abbott knows the carbon tax will be difficult to dismantle because the machinery of government (including several agencies established by the Howard Government) has been designed to institutionalise it.

It will probably take not one but two elections, including a double-dissolution election, for Mr Abbott to succeed in his pledge in “blood” to repeal the tax, let alone undo all the social security benefits and so-called carbon dioxide “property rights” which have been knitted into the legislation.

And while it seems almost preposterous that there could be a move against Abbott next year, there remain elements within the parliamentary Liberal Party who believe that their return to power at the next election would be even more assured had they a “softer”, more broadly appealing, face at the helm.

This is not entirely Gillard Government propaganda.

Indeed, self-interest rather than political strategy is the guiding force here, and there is a group of ambitious MPs who also know they will be out in the cold after the next election with Tony Abbott as Prime Minister.

Their only hope is a switch of leaders beforehand.

Recent polls have given the Government a whiff of hope that Labor could pull off the next election, and senior Labor figures are taking their opportunity to bait Mr Abbott over his negativity and for presiding over a “policy-free zone”.

The catalyst for this change in fortune for Mr Abbott was the passage of the carbon tax bills.

Treasurer Wayne Swan declared that Mr Abbott had already given up the fight by travelling to the United Kingdom after parliament rose.

Mr Abbott had gone “overseas with his tail between his legs after all the tough-guy talk.... What a spineless retreat”.

Ms Gillard said Mr Abbott had no intention of removing the tax once he got into office.

Putting aside the hyperbole, the reality of these laws, which come into effect from July 1 next year, has been a sobering experience for Mr Abbott and his frontbench.

Enormous forces — both financial and political — will be brought to bear on Mr Abbott to accept them.

The Labor Government will use the “reality” of the tax to reinforce its claim that the people’s anger over being duped at the last election will dissipate and gradually be replaced with resignation about the tax.

The Government will spend tens of millions of dollars in advertising to reinforce the message of the necessity of the tax, and the inevitability of the tax.

Outside politics there are many businesses which stand to make a fortune from the new tax, including banks, insurance companies, accounting and legal firms. They will put pressure on Mr Abbott to put up the white flag.

But underestimating his determination to repeal the tax would mean making the same mistake about Mr Abbott’s determination to date.

This is why the second view — that Mr Abbott is right where he wants to be at this stage of the political cycle — may be the more accurate interpretation.

Rarely has a leader dominated the political agenda from the Opposition benches to the degree Tony Abbott has.

Perhaps Gough Whitlam, who was able to switch Australia’s foreign policy on China against a hapless William McMahon, is the only comparable Opposition leader in recent history.

Ms Gillard’s time as Prime Minister is now widely regarded as terminal — it is just a matter of when the powerbrokers who installed her will replace her with another leader.

Over the past few weeks Ms Gillard has had a few “wins”, including the passage of the carbon tax legislation through the parliament, the backing of higher wages for community workers, and the likely endorsement of a change to uranium export policy.

Basking in the glow of US President Barack Obama and mingling with foreign leaders on the international stage have also helped to bolster her image.

This has resulted in a bounce in the poll while helping to shore up her internal support.

Yet Mr Abbott would much prefer Ms Gillard as an adversary rather than a switch to a new leader, including a rejuvenated and wiser Kevin Rudd.

It is important to realise that Labor needs to increase its vote at the next election, not just maintain it.

Mr Abbott has been negative for the first year of the Gillard Government, with devastating effect.

Perhaps what the Government should be afraid of is what may or may not happen when he flicks the rhetoric and the policy agenda to positive. 

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