For political analysts and pundits alike, Tony Abbott is the Impossible Opposition Leader. Never before have we seen an alternative prime minister run such a relentlessly negative campaign for so long.
Big on three-word slogans but small on policy detail, Abbott has single-mindedly focused on running Labor into the ground since he beat silvertail Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull by one vote in December 2009. With this slender mandate, Abbott lurched the Liberal party to the right of the middle ground, being uncomfortably straddled by Labor as it tried to appease not only its labour antecedents, but also an idealistically progressive rump.
Since then, certainty and competency have been the names of Abbott’s game. At a time when voters are unsure who the Labor leader will be tomorrow morning, or which promise they will break next, Abbott offers them a beacon of dark light with simple pledges of negativity that do little more than emphasise the government’s key failings.
The “stop the boats” rhetoric not only dog-whistles the community’s xenophobes and bigots, but signals that Labor can’t protect the nation’s borders. “Scrap the carbon tax” comforts not only those who think climate change is crap, but reminds how Julia Gillard broke a promise to form a devilish pact with the Greens to secure A minority government. Perhaps most transparent is Abbott’s new pledge, “no surprises and no excuses”, which paints the government as chaotic and irresponsible.
The consequences of Abbott’s “campaign of no” are all too clear. Political discourse in Australia has descended into megaphone territory, with partisans using any and all platforms to besmirch, ridicule and aggressively denounce those who don’t agree with their party’s line. Skirmishes and biffs constantly break out on social media and talkback radio, while confected conflict masquerades as news on tabloid television and in the print media. We are all the poorer for it.
Meantime, Abbott has also paid a price. Not since the Liberal’s twice-risen soufflé, Andrew Peacock, has a leader of the opposition had such a high disapproval rating while simultaneously delivering a strong primary vote for their party. Granted, with a disapproval rating higher than Abbott’s worst (67% compared with 63%), Peacock still took the Coalition to within a bee’s ding of victory at the 1990 federal election, securing 20,000 more votes but nine seats less than Labor. We’re much further out from the election than Peacock was when he scored that career-high disapproval rating just two weeks before polling day, but it’s instructive to note the Coalition enticed back 4.5% of voters in those last few days.
Support for the Coalition is much stronger today, but there are still enough soft voters currently “parked” with the opposition to change the election outcome if they decided their disillusionment with Gillard was insufficient justification to vote for Abbott.
Abbott and his strategists know this, and are determined to avoid the Pox On Both Your Houses effect that delivered the balance of power to a motley collection of Greens and Independents at the 2010 federal election.
Recognising this, Abbott has thrown the switch to Statesman. The daily Question Times rants have disappeared, or been relegated to shadow ministers. The look is more polished, the language more considered, and the message has evolved from one-dimensional chants about stopping the boats and scrapping the tax to incorporate a positive element with pledges of hope, reward and opportunity.
It’s too early to tell whether a navy suit (which is meant to engender trust) and a less hectoring tone will be enough to convince us that Abbott is prime minister material.
The transformation is at least entrancing the federal parliamentary press gallery. In a celebration of “savviness” that would make Jay Rosen’s head spin, the gallery’s breathless reports of Abbott’s budget reply focussed less on the substance of his budgetary measures than the audacity of him outlining them at all. We’re yet to see whether the transformation to Statesman Tony™ has even registered with the voting public, let alone whether they buy it.
Strategically deploying new suits, blue ties and slogans, Abbott is making this federal election about certainty and competency. Some days, the government seems to be doing everything it can to help him.
The last time an opposition leader took such firm control of the election agenda, it was Kevin07. Rudd masterfully shaped the entire election campaign by pledging to be just like John Howard, but with bonus features like the ratification of Kyoto and scrapping of WorkChoices.
And hey, that worked out so well, didn’t it?
This post first appeared at Guardian Australia.