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November 25th 2011 print

David Flint

Oz prelates vs. Abbott

The opposition should be pleased with the preferred prime minister poll. And Tony Abbott is right to ignore the theologians at The Australian.


The preferred PM poll favours Tony Abbott


Labor’s two-party-preferred vote took a hit in the latest Newspoll, but Ms Gillard now leads Mr Abbott as preferred prime minister, 40 per cent to 35 per cent. That may be affected by the latest machinations over the Speaker, which will not reflect well on the government. Tony Abbott acted with great restraint – if the electorate is concerned about the Machiavellian deal this should help him.

In any event , this aspect of the poll was great news for the opposition and not for the government. It means there will probably be no challenge against Julia Gillard, at least for the time being. A new leader might have been tempted to go to an early election, hoping for a bounce in support.  This probably would not work, but who knows? It is in the interests of the opposition that Ms Gillard lead the government at the next election.

The core of the Newspoll is definitely not good news for the government. Their primary vote has fallen from 32 to 30%, while the Coalition vote has risen from 44 to 48%. The disaster for the Labor Party is that their crucial two-party preferred vote has fallen from 47 to 43%.

If this is maintained to the election, the coalition will win and by a landslide. This will confirm to the Liberal party backbench that notwithstanding the advice of the commentariat, and the antics of some foolish and/or ambitious people, they should stick with Tony Abbott.

He has led them to this point as no one else could.

The poll has also confirmed that Tony Abbott would be wise to continue to follow his current winning strategy.

First, the opposition should continue to oppose – and oppose vigorously – a government which remains highly unpopular. The electorate has clearly made a judgement that the government is profligate, wasteful and incompetent. Worse, they see it as duplicitous. The electorate shows no signs of forgiving them for breaking the promise that there would be no carbon tax. The government hopes that by the election, they will have forgotten.

While the Labor Party and their supporters in the gallery will pan Abbott as negative, he must continue to resist that. He must ignore those purist and doctrinaire commentators within The Australian who are always telling him to honour some or other ideological principle. Led by Paul Kelly, they write and speak as if they were theologians. They are of course only part of the offerings of The Australian which in many ways is a broad church. Just think of Phillip Adams.

When the “theologians” issue a new encyclical, the opposition should remember that it was The Australian who campaigned for Kevin Rudd in the 2007 election. They did this knowing full well that Labor would reverse the labour market deregulation which the “theologians” had so lovingly endorsed.

The second aspect of the Abbott strategy should be to avoid the temptation to announce they will wind back any of the sweeteners the government has offered the electorate for its many bitter pills, including the compensation for the CO2 tax.  Why make enemies now merely to satisfy the “theologians” at The Australian?

The coalition has always been a better economic manager; just by doing away with waste, the coalition will be probably be able to absorb many if not all of the sweeteners which the electorate has been offered. Just think of the losses the government has incurred in relation to pink batts, the building the education revolution, and the NBN.

What has to be avoided is any knee jerk reaction by a shadow minister to any particular sweetener. Any undertaking to retract such a sweetener should only be made after the most careful consideration of the consequences and at the highest level.

Of course there will be many in the gallery, including the “theologians”, who will pan the opposition for this. As they did over the “Malaysian solution”, which they insisted Abbott should support. The electors won’t be voting on theology.

Third, he should continue not to release policy details until the election campaign. The Hewson experience shows that a detailed policy statement given in advance may well create an initial bounce. But its gradual dissection by a hostile government and the analysis of a left of centre commentariat will only lead to it being a burden. And some parts of that policy could be stolen by the government. The opposition no doubt recalls what happened in the 2007 election when John Howard’s tax cuts were shamelessly copied by Kevin Rudd.

In the meantime the government and the commentariat have finally accepted that rather than being unelectable, Abbott is reaching through to the rank-and-file in a way that few modern politicians can. They like his down-to-earth, genuine, sportive style. They approve of his community work, so long done behind the scenes, without spin doctors and photo opportunities. While he may repel the elites in the inner city electorates, those in the suburbs and in the country are more likely to identify with Tony Abbott.  Hence the campaign to portray him as some latter day Vyacheslav Molotov, our own Mr No.

A final point is that Tony Abbott understands that neither serious politicians nor the media go into retreat over the long summer. You would have thought this elementary fact would have been grasped after recent summers which have been dominated by newsworthy events, including the implosion of Mark Latham. Tony Abbott is a serious professional and he will be on call over summer – as he was when he attained the leadership.

After such a year this will be demanding, but it will have its own rewards.