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Is Abbott the conservatives' liability?

By Malcolm Colless - posted Tuesday, 30 October 2012


Can the Liberals under Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, lose next year's unloseable election?

After all they did manage to achieve this in 1993 as a result of a mishandled GST policy despite strong public support behind then Opposition Leader John Hewson's Fightback! campaign. And more recently the NSW Liberals led by Peter Debnam failed to deliver a knockout punch to a dysfunctional Labor administration headed by Premier Morris Iemma in the 2007 election despite a 4 percent increase in seats and a 2.63 percent swing to the coalition.

But the polls, if they are a reliable guide, say that despite a narrowing in the margin between the major parties history will not repeat itself at the next Federal election. And so do senior members of the Liberal Party.

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Having said that there is, nevertheless, a growing disquiet among the party faithful about how Abbott is handling the job as leader and the extent to which he is cutting through to the electorate.

"How do you think Tony is going?" Liberal Party supporters are asking with nervous frequency even in his own Sydney electorate of Warringah. They are quick to stress that they are not advocating a change in the leader. Then they add the rider: "I can't put my finger on it but there is just something about Tony that worries me."

One thing is clear they are not buying the line in the campaign driven by embattled Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, that Abbott is a misogynist who can't handle women in powerful positions. At the same time there is concern that his reaction to this campaign suggests he and his advisers were unprepared for this attack which has been like a train coming down the track for ages.

Abbott's recent apology to the Prime Minister for any offence she may have taken from his comments that the Government was inexperienced when it came to looking after children preempted a renewed attack from Gillard on this issue but is being interpreted by some Liberals as buckling under the mounting Labor pressure on the issue of political correctness.

They worry that this is creating an image of indeciveness. "We know what Tony is opposed to but what does he stand for," they ask, ironically echoing a catchcry from Labor designed to wedge the Liberal Leader. For example, we know that Abbott will not go down the Work Choices path on industrial relations reform. This policy he says is dead and buried. But we are still to see what his vision is for a new, conservative, industrial relations landscape.

Throughout his long political career the most recent Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, established and maintained a strong relationship with small business which he regarded as a traditional Liberal Party base. This enduring association was something on which Howard prided himself. He believed despite all the demands of national leadership the electorate knew at the end of the day he had the interests of small business at heart. It's a recurring theme in his autobiography, Lazarus Rising.

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Maybe this is what Abbott is lacking. He is not identified with any particular issue. This is not to say that he needs to bare his policy backside before the campaign begins for the next election. It is more about creating a policy persona that will resonate with the electorate -something that will become the lynchpin in his claim to the Prime Ministership.

We know that Abbott is a passionate swimmer and surf lifesaver - someone who did for budgie smugglers what Bob Hawke did for a yard of beer. But this image of a rugged outdoorsman is being used by his political opponents to subtantiate their claims that he is a woman hater who feels more comfortable dealing with men.

Rather than responding directly to these ludicrous claims Abbott should let his policy do the talking. But this takes us full circle to the question: What does he stand for? And the clock is ticking down to the election.

Despite all this Abbott is seemingly unassailable as Liberal leader. The only other person whose name is even mentioned as an alternative is Malcolm Turnbull and it appears clear the party has no stomach for such a back to the future experiment. In any case it would split the coalition, something which would be disastrous for its electoral prospects.

So with the fate of the conservatives resting squarely on Abbott's broad shoulders we can expect a growing influence from wise old heads in the party over the months ahead.

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About the Author

Malcolm Colless is a freelance journalist and political commentator. He was a journalist on The Times in London from 1969-71 and Australian correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 1972-76. He was political editor of The Australian, based in Canberra, from 1977-81 and a director of News Ltd from 1991-2007.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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