10 August 2013
The Australian Financial Review
Election The Opposition Leader’s polls are improving but the fear of losing won’t go away, writes Geoff Kitney.
Tony Abbott has edged a few steps closer to securing the big political prize he cherishes and away from the precipice he dreads.
As voters begin to weigh up the decision they will have to make when they vote on September 7, the weight of a troubled and turbulent six years in office is showing signs of sinking Kevin Rudd’s audacious attempt to save the government.
The Rudd resurrection has stalled and restarting it is going to be mightily difficult.
The first week of the election campaign has seen reality bite. The dominant position that the Coalition has occupied for most of the years of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership has diminished but not evaporated.
Not that Abbott is relaxed about this.
For a frontrunner, he still looks pretty uptight.
Not surprising, really. Abbott has had the fright of his life and the fear won’t go until the votes are in and he can finally rest assured that he has won the trust of the people.
The four weeks of the campaign which he still has to endure will be the longest of Abbott’s life. Having for so long had the prime ministership within his grasp and then having his grip loosened by Rudd’s return, Abbott is understandably not assuming anything.Rudd’s impact on opinion polls The dramatic impact on the opinion polls which followed Rudd’s replacement of Gillard has given Abbott the most nerve-racking weeks of his political life.
The surge back to Labor and the slump in Abbott’s personal ratings confirmed what had been obvious for a long time – that there is little popular enthusiasm for the idea of an Abbott prime ministership.
He knows well what losing tastes like. Twenty years ago as a key figure in the team behind John Hewson’s infamous “Fightback” election he saw the unloseable election lost.
Worse, under his leadership the Coalition beat Labor by one seat in the 2010 election yet Abbott managed to wrestle defeat from the jaws of victory when Gillard became prime minister by convincing the independents to support her.
No wonder he can imagine the worst from Rudd’s return.
Abbott’s consistent and unrelenting strategy of ferociously prosecuting the case against Labor while keeping his policies as vague as he can get away with is the mirror image of the fateful Hewson campaign.
It worked brilliantly, until Gillard was dumped.
Rudd rocked Abbott’s boat and he’s been fighting to get it back on an even keel.Poll findings a relief The findings of the AFR Nielsen poll – the first since Rudd set the election date – will be a huge relief to Abbott, even if not a reason for premature celebration.
It shows that Abbott has a real chance of avoiding the repeat of history that he so dreads.
It revives Abbott’s hope that his name will be added to the list of Liberal leaders who made it, next on the role of honour after the leader he most admires – John Howard.
A lead at the end of the first week of the campaign is the best that Abbott could have hoped for his own confidence and for the confidence of Coalition supporters.
It gives the Coalition the chance to contemplate the possibilities of government.
It gives the community – and the business community in particular – cause to consider the prospect of a Coalition government.
Business is investing great faith in the return of the Coalition to the Treasury benches and to having business friendly hands on the levers of government – especially those connected to the economy.
Trust that the Coalition will manage the economy better than have the Rudd and Gillard governments is a powerful force working to put Abbott in the prime ministership.Ahead in economic manangement Every poll on the issues in this campaign shows the coalition with a significant lead in economic management.
It is the issue now standing like a sheer cliff between Kevin Rudd and a stunning victory.
Despite the best news a government could hope for in the first week of the election campaign – an official interest rate cut, immediately passed on to consumers by the banks – Rudd and Labor have gone backwards .
Voters have interpreted the rate cut on the Coalition’s terms – that it is a sign of an economy in distress, not a sign of success. This is a vital strategic victory for Abbott and shadow treasurer Joe Hockey.
Rudd has to claw back ground on economic management. He cannot win if he doesn’t.
Abbott knows that he will win if he fends off Rudd’s attempts to shoot holes in the credibility of the Coalition’s economic policy.
This ensures that Abbott will continue to try to deflect Labor’s attempts to convince voters he has a hidden agenda for draconian budget cuts and anti-worker workplace reforms. This will test Abbott’s so far successful tactic of keeping vague the details of likely budget cuts and offering strong assurances not to make tough policy changes or major tax changes without first taking them to an election.Generalities on policy After his bitter Hewson campaign experience Abbott learnt from Howard the importance of sticking to reassuring generalities on policy.
He also learnt from witnessing the self-destruction of Gillard over the issue of trustworthiness, the importance of not making promises that he cannot expect to keep.
This is why Abbott has deferred until he is elected on outlining detailed policies on a wide range of issues by committing to conduct a long list of reviews and inquiries before taking policy decisions.
He has promised an audit commission inquiry into public spending and to commission white papers on tax reform, direct action climate change measures, streamlining federal-state relations, defence policy and developing northern Australia. He has also set out a huge work schedule for the Productivity Commission which will be asked to report on industrial relations reform, industry assistance and child care.
Pro-reform advocates in the Coalition – and their supporters in the business community – looking at the prospects for economic reform under an Abbott government are uneasy about the risk that Abbott will only move slowly on a reform agenda they see as urgent.
Abbott has signalled that he intends to pursue “sensible economic reforms” but has kept vague what he defines as “sensible”.
Those with doubts will get nothing form Abbott before the election to ease them.
He has only one goal and just one date in his head – a decisive Coalition victory on September 7. What comes after than will be dealt with then.