Tony Abbott is the 32nd man to have served as federal opposition leader. Only 16 of his predecessors ever made it to the prime ministership.
Some of those opposition leaders got two chances to fight an election. Only Evatt and Calwell were given three but neither succeeded.
Of 15 opposition leaders over the past 35 years, only Fraser, Hawke and Rudd won office on their first electoral outing. Kim Beazley was given two consecutive opportunities but failed at both. Hayden, Peacock, Howard, Hewson and Latham all fought one losing election and then lost the leadership before the next.
Peacock and Howard both won back the Liberal Party leadership but only the very persistent Howard (like Menzies before him) avenged his earlier defeat.
Recent omens are even worse for opposition leaders. In the past decade, three party leaders (Crean, Nelson and Turnbull) were knocked off before they fought even one election. Kim Beazley, returned for a second stint as leader, was also deposed before facing the electorate.
Since Federation, of the 27 men and women who have been prime minister, only seven got the job the first time around at an election (Cook, Scullin, Lyons, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Rudd) and that’s if you overlook the vice-regal assistance offered to Fraser.
The significance of this? Simply that Tony Abbott is living on borrowed time.
He must know that the August 21 election was his best chance to become prime minister. He could win the 2013 election but he must also know that his real problem is lasting to that point.
Hence, the explanation for Abbott’s belligerent behaviour since the election is straight-forward. Gaining office through destabilising the Gillard Government is his best chance of maintaining his leadership. The prospect of an early election secures his leadership. Assuming government without an election cements it.
Notwithstanding his natural tendency to “ferocious” opposition, a tactic that has worked very well for him so far, Abbott’s political future hinges on creating and maintaining an air of crisis and instability around the Gillard Government.
But as every day passes, the reality of still being in Opposition must surely be eating away at Liberal members.
The restless Mr Turnbull, tapping away on his iPad during Question Time, surely yearns for the ministerial benches. The man who would have been leader, Mr Hockey, must still marvel at how his tactical incompetence allowed Abbott to snatch the leadership just 10 months ago. The rejuvenated Mr Robb, yearning for Hockey’s Treasury portfolio, must wonder when his moment will come.
On the backbenches, old and new members must surely question the viability of a shadow ministry that still contains the likes of Mr Ruddock, Mrs Bishop, Mrs Mirabella and Senator Fierravanti-Wells. Political futures are on hold here.
Speaking on a condolence motion yesterday for the former Whitlam government minister, Ken Wriedt, Tony Abbott raised the ire of the Labor faithful with a gratuitous political attack. Liberal loyalists no doubt nodded approvingly but perhaps some of them took silent note of this confrontational side of Abbott’s character. Is it an impediment to victory?
Earlier in the week, Abbott’s speech on Afghanistan was a finely-crafted and well-delivered effort. But what has he had to say in recent weeks about issues as disparate as the Murray-Darling and the value of the Australian dollar? Mired instead in the farce arising from his Afghanistan jet lag comment, Abbott has been diminished.
To read Barrie Cassidy’s new book on the political convulsions of the past year, ‘The Party Thieves’, is to see that the talk inside the ALP about Kevin Rudd over the past couple of years was largely at odds with public perceptions and media reporting. The repressed anger and mounting hostility that erupted in June’s leadership coup says much about the subterranean world of MPs’ perceptions.
For instance, what are Liberals thinking and saying to one another about the election result? Yes, they nearly snatched victory from a first-term government. They won a swag of seats. It was a historic revival of political fortunes.
But look more closely and there is much to worry them. Forget the silly talk about how they won more votes and seats. In reality, they know they only got a national swing of 2.58 per cent. Most of the votes lost to Labor went to the Greens. After all the upheaval, only 49.88 per cent of the country opted for the Coalition.
Queensland gifted them most. A swing of 5.58 per cent delivered seven seats so that the LNP now hold 21 out of 30. At best, a couple more are possibilities next time.
Elsewhere, the Liberals can hardly do any better in Western Australia. They already held 11 of the 15 seats prior to the election. A swing of 3.15 per cent produced a net gain of just one.
Abbott lost the election in his own backyard. Despite the 4.84 per cent swing against Labor in New South Wales and a two-party vote of 51.16 per cent, the Coalition failed to come close to winning a majority of seats. Labor holds 26, the Liberals 16, Nationals four and independents two.
In Sydney, a redistribution meant that the Liberals won two notionally Labor seats (Gilmore and Macarthur) and one seat where the incumbent had retired (Macquarie).
Regaining Bennelong from Maxine McKew was the only seat the Liberals took from a recontesting Labor member in Sydney.
The state average swing in Greenway fell short of a desperately needed victory. Late candidate selection in the fabled Lindsay didn’t help there. Those two seats alone would have delivered the prime ministership to Abbott.
The swing outside Sydney cost the Liberals seats. On the central coast, there was a swing to the ALP in Robertson and Dobell. In southern New South Wales, Eden-Monaro stayed with Labor, as did the party’s new regional base in the north where it has consolidated its hold on the former National Party seats of Page and Richmond.
If New South Wales killed Abbott’s hopes of winning the election, Victoria hammered two nails into the coffin. A pro-Labor swing of 1.04 per cent delivered 55.31 per cent of the vote and two new seats to Gillard. If Victoria was once the “jewel in the crown” for the Liberal Party, it is now what someone described as the “Massachusetts of the south” for Labor. They hold 22 of the 37 divisions, even after losing Melbourne to the Greens.
The reaction against the Liberals was nearly as strong in South Australia where a swing of 0.78 per cent gave Labor 53.18 per cent of the vote, although no seats changed hands.
In Tasmania, despite losing Denison to Andrew Wilkie, there was a 4.41 per cent swing to Labor. A massive 60.62 per cent of Tasmanians prefer Labor over the Liberals.
All over Australia, Labor faces dangers on its left flank. The day of reckoning with the Greens will come sooner or later. But can a Liberal MP look at these election results and be confident of victory next time?
To be sure of winning government they need to maintain their support in the so-called mining states of Western Australian and Queensland and do better in crucial areas of Sydney and in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. Here the issues are different. Campaigning on this schizophrenic political playing field is challenging for either side, but arguably more so for Tony Abbott.
The issues that drove voters south of the Murray to the Greens and the ALP are not the issues that animate Tony Abbott. Climate change anyone? Economic stimulus?
It is a reasonable view that the most successful governments in Australia are right-wing Labor governments with a focus on economic development and a flash of progressive social reform. Whatever its weaknesses, the Bracks/Brumby government is the exemplar. Sound management of the budget has been combined with political reform, social legislation, and close attention to the regions. Is it any surprise that the formerly classic Victorian marginal seats of Ballarat and Bendigo are now 60 per cent Labor seats?
The question for the Liberals is whether Abbott is the leader who can break through in areas such as these to win next time. Does he have the policy heft? Is he temperamentally suited to winning over those voters who reacted so negatively to him in 2010?
Abbott is identified with a profound negativity generally and especially on social issues. Women? A republic? Climate change is “crap”?
Abbott is a polarising figure. This is no bad thing and has stood him in good stead so far but Rod Cameron may yet be right about Abbott’s unelectability (sic). If you write off Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia, the chances of winning an election when you already have most of the seats in Western Australia and Queensland are limited.
At the 2009 Melbourne Writers Festival, I watched Abbott speak at three separate events, including one where he spoke about his just released book, ‘Battlelines’. I was surprised and struck by how unimpressive he was in those environments. Disarmingly affable, yes, but like his book, he seemed to be all over the place on issues. He’s a conservative monarchist and a parliamentary traditionalist, yet he favours a radical assault on the federal system to entrench the power of the Commonwealth.
Beyond that, however, he struck me as having little to say about the big issues of the day. His contributions were reheated offerings of the same thin gruel dressed up as a political philosophy.
At his core, Abbott is a political warrior. He is happiest and most effective when he is fighting against something. Like other student politicians of his generation, his political character was formed in an environment of hostility and aggression. It plays well in some parts of Australia but how long can an Opposition remain a one-trick pony?
In Question Time yesterday, the Government was unusually relaxed and jocular. It was almost as if they have recovered from the trauma of the past 12 months. Ministers were introducing new legislation with relish.
Abbott, however, looks increasingly like one of those generals still fighting the last war.
As the year draws to an end and a hot summer gives way to another year in Opposition, perhaps the Liberals will give cold and calculating thought to the fate of their leader.
If it were done…?
This article first appeared on The Drum.