Abbott has six months to get it right

The next federal election may be two years away, but Tony Abbott’s reckoning will take place within the next six months.

There’s a question that’s been rolling around the minds of political pundits over the summer break: can Tony Abbott make it through 2015 to argue the case for his Government’s re-election in 2016? Or has the Prime Minister squandered the political capital gained from scrapping the carbon tax and stopping the boats, leaving him with an irretrievable credibility deficit in the eyes of voters?

Trade Minister Andrew Robb – who as federal director of the Liberal Party ran the losing campaign in 1993 for John Hewson and then the winning one in 1996 for John Howard – was at least putting on a brave face in November last year, saying there’s still a long way to go until polling day.

And indeed that’s true. At this point there’s almost two years until the next federal election. And if we’ve learned anything this past year it’s that political fortunes can turn on a dime – just ask former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell or his Labor counterpart John Robertson.

Robb’s words imply Abbott has time to turn his political fortunes around, yet the voting public seems far less confident; 51 per cent of respondents to an Essential Poll in December indicated they didn’t believe Abbott would be PM at the next federal election. While this result was due in large part to the non-Coalition supporters in the survey sample, even only 50 per cent of Coalition supporters thought Abbott would survive as PM to the next election.

Abbott’s lowest approval rating* so far is 30 per cent, recorded in the weeks after the federal budget. He is yet to sink to the depths of Paul Keating in August 1993 (17 per cent), Julia Gillard in September 2011 (23 per cent) and Bob Hawke in December 1991 (27 per cent). While Hawke and Gillard were replaced as PM, in Hawke’s case immediately after that poll, Keating battled on until the 1996 election, which he lost to John Howard.

On this measure, the portents don’t speak well for Abbott. So it is perhaps not surprising that in an end-of-year interview he essentially argued against a change in PM, citing voters’ apparent punishment of Labor for the Rudd coup.

What Abbott conveniently forgot to note is that the Gillard ascension came as a complete surprise to the broader community, and there was no understanding of the need to remove Rudd. Gillard’s perceived illegitimacy, paired with party instability caused by Rudd’s campaign of revenge, were as much to blame for Labor’s poor polling as the initial ruthless removal of the presiding PM.

This scenario has no analogue with the hypothetical removal of Abbott. If it were to happen, the voting public would be under no illusion as to why the Coalition ditched an unpopular and accident-prone PM who failed to listen to his colleagues or make a connection with voters.

Of the four prime ministers with higher disapproval ratings than Abbott’s 62 per cent – Keating with 75 per cent, Gillard with 68 per cent, John Howard with 64 per cent and Hawke with 64 per cent – only Howard went on to win the next election (with a little help from the Tampa incident and the September 11 attacks).

Does this mean Abbott is doomed to the ex-prime ministerial scrap heap?

Well, not yet. The man does have the capacity to transform himself if he puts his mind to it. We saw this after the summer break in 2013, when Abbott emerged resplendent in trust-me navy suits and regulationpale blue tie. This was following months of media and commentator speculation about whether the opposition leader could drop the brawler persona that had served him so well in opposition for the more statesmanlike approach that voters expected of their alternative prime minister.

Abbott started the new year in 2013 with an address to the National Press Club, reminiscent of the “headland” speeches that John Howard favoured to refresh or reset a political or policy agenda. Having unveiled a “fresh” approach at the NPC, Abbott’s new wardrobe was matched with a different tack in parliament too, in which he remained above the fray and delegated the attack dog duties to shadow ministers instead.

This approach worked, and by March Abbott took the lead as preferred PM. That is, until Gillard was replaced by Rudd in June 2013.

So Abbott has demonstrated the capacity to change his approach, but the transformation he must undergo this summer to secure his political survival will necessarily involve much more than getting new designer duds. Regrettably, it’s a challenge to sort through the inches and hours of advice being gratuitously provided to identify which is well meant and which is ideologically driven.

For mine I will offer only one suggestion: repair the Government’s relationship with voters before trying to prosecute any reform agenda.

In reality it’s too early to tell whether Abbott will make it through 2015 as Prime Minister but there are three – maybe four – upcoming tests of his survival.

The first will be a likely “headland” address to the National Press Club later this month. The second and third will be the state elections in Queensland (expected by end of March) and NSW (on March 28). And the last will be the budget in May.

Each of these events provides Abbott and his Government with the opportunity for political success as well as the seeds of their own destruction. The NPC address can kick off the Government’s apparent new focus on jobs and children, but if Abbott uses it to tell voters they must listen or don’t understand the importance of budgetary reform then it will entrench voter resentment.

Such antipathy will be compounded if Abbott shows the same disregard for his colleagues in the Liberal heartlands of Queensland and NSW as he did for Victorian premier Denis Napthine in November. Unrest within the federal Coalition’s party room is also at least partly due to the impact that Abbott’s poorly timed petrol tax announcement had on the Victorian election, and similar misjudgements in the other two state elections could foment the unhappiness of MPs with marginal seats in those locations.

And finally, there is the budget, of which little needs to be said other than it must be seen to be fair. The chances of that happening are minimal if the Government’s aforementioned relationship with voters is not first repaired.

Abbott is by no means Australia’s most unpopular prime minister, but it would be unwise of him to assume Labor’s Rudd experience will stop the Coalition party room from removing him if he becomes a political liability. There are enough former Howard ministers in that party room to remember the cost of not moving on him before they were subjected to electoral oblivion in 2007 – and it’s not likely to be an experience they want to repeat.

The next election is indeed two years away, but Abbott’s reckoning will take place within the next six months. He has only until then to repair his relationship with voters and turn his electoral prospects around.

*All opinion poll results are from Newspoll, except for the Essential Poll result where noted and linked.