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Who Says Abbott Should Flick The Switch To Positive?

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have one thing in common: Their lives contain the never-ending irritation of people telling them how they should do their jobs.

AbbottEven their summer break won’t be free of the buzz of gratuitous advice. As much as they must wish to swat it away, politics demands they feign nonchalance.

In their private moments, I kind of hope they rail against the indignity of it. After all, they’re the ones who entered the arena and made it into parliament. As they claw and scramble their way to the top, they must surely know that the rest of us would struggle, as the Americans say, to be elected dog catcher. “Walk in my shoes awhile, you have no idea,” they must sometimes think.

Gillard has had more than her share of advice this year but in recent weeks the political and journalistic establishment has turned its attention to Abbott. The message is a simple one: it’s time to go positive.

The message is everywhere. Perhaps it’s something to do with year’s end and our superstitious need to rule lines and wipe slates. How else do we explain the demand that the Opposition Leader start announcing new policies, start explaining his costings, and generally reveal his plans for government? Now. Not in 2013.

Perhaps the Politics 101 textbooks have been hauled out. They all offer a variation of the mantra that the role of the opposition is two-fold: to critique the government and hold it to account, and to offer a program of action to be pursued in government.

It’s a perfectly reasonably proposition. It’s handy to know what an incoming government intends to do and how they intend to spend our money. It’s especially sensible to find out what they’re prepared to promise before they take office.

But who says it has to start now? This is politics after all. Why donate ammunition that your opponents and the media get to fire back at you?

Yes, there’s a civic duty in all this. The Opposition should unveil its plans in good time for them to be examined and debated by the public, the media and their opponents. It’s the democratic thing to do, especially for Abbott’s Opposition which has dug itself into a budget costings hole of gigantic proportions.

Their earnest declaration that they can find $70-$80 billion in budget savings through so-called efficiency measures and disposal of public servants isn’t widely believed, even on their own side, if newspaper reports are to be believed. Explaining how they can maintain Labor’s superannuation increase whilst abolishing the mining tax which will fund it is one example of the financial conundrums they have created thus far.

But the demand that this take place now is an artificial one. Any sensible opposition would keep its powder dry until the budgetary situation is known closer to the election.

Of course, there was once a time when opposition policies were revealed at the start of the election campaign, six weeks or so from polling day. But they were different times. The media wasn’t as pervasive. Now there’s the constant urgency of filling white space, web pages and television time.

In part, Abbott has himself to blame for the demand that he cough up his plans. He went to last year’s election with shonky costings. The Treasury analysis of those figures during the negotiations with the independents after the election was devastating. It stiffened the resolve of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to back Gillard.

Moreover, Abbott’s high octane assault on the Government since the election has been directed at blasting Gillard from office and forcing a new election one way or another. His argument that Gillard’s is a bad government getting worse leads inevitably to a new poll. His demand for an election by definition makes it utterly reasonable to ask Abbott to explain what he intends to do.

The truth is, though, that all of this is sophistry. Just as Abbott slips and slides over his policies, the Government doesn’t bring clean hands to the debate either. Both sides are locked in a struggle for supremacy over the other. The media is hardly a disinterested party either.

This is visceral politics, not an exercise in polite civic debate. It most definitely isn’t a university tutorial on how public policy should be made. And, yes, it’s excessively aggressive and acrimonious. Abbott and his crew of political warriors and media urgers bear much of the responsibility.

But who can blame Abbott for his strategy when the demand that he flick the switch to positive is barely supported by historical precedent?

In 1991, Abbott had some personal experience of the John Hewson approach to opposition. The release of his Fightback! platform – of which a 15 per cent GST was only the most well-known element – may have helped destroy Bob Hawke but it also exposed Hewson to 18 months of Paul Keating in full flight against his plans. Ultimately, Keating secured an unexpected re-election in 1993. Fightback! is the ultimate cautionary tale for oppositions.

At the other end of the scale, who would seriously suggest that Malcolm Fraser took a well-honed suite of policies to the 1975 election? His guerrilla campaign against Gough Whitlam makes Abbott look like a wimp.

Consider John Howard. In the lead-up to the 1996 election, Howard set about defusing contentious issues – the “never ever” GST – and devoted himself to delivering a series of Headland speeches which set out general principles and philosophical approaches to government. Howard garnished his small-target approach with some specifics but it was more a campaign against Paul Keating.

Ditto Kevin Rudd. In 2007, he minimised the differences, made a few appeals to traditional Labor policies in education and health – laptops for students, pension increases – but made sure there wasn’t a sliver of light between his economic strategy and Howard’s. It was, of course, about Kevin07. Throw in the promise to ratify Kyoto and a skilful campaign against the hated WorkChoices, and that was it.

There are so many different approaches to opposition. Kim Beazley, for instance, wasted three years in opposition thinking the GST was his path back to power in 2001. Some real policies might have helped. Mark Latham had some in 2004 but they weren’t exactly road-tested before the campaign. Medicare Gold and forestry policy, anyone? Even so, much of the demonisation of Latham has been retrospective. Throughout 2004, he was widely regarded as giving Howard a run for his money.

Be positive, be negative, be a small target, spell out a program, avoid the detail – who knows? Multiple models are on offer. Perhaps, in the end, in the real test of leadership, it’s instinctive. There is no rule book. Every election is different. Every government exists in its own unique milieu and must be tackled accordingly. Opposition leaders must judge the situation as they see it.

In the end, it’s just possible political leaders fall into office, a combination of their opponents running out of steam, the turn of the electoral cycle and their own talent for not cocking it all up.

So it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Abbott should disregard the gratuitous advice of the government and the media and ignore their suggested timetable for policy development. Like Abbott’s campaign against them, the Government’s “relentless negativity” line is a political ploy, even if soundly based. Some think it is working but recent polls all show the government in the electoral doldrums. So far, Abbott’s instincts have served him well.

The commentary that demands Abbott play his politics differently is based in part on personal discomfort with the man. Many reject his social conservatism, his religiosity, macho-boy style, and his disdain for politically fashionable viewpoints. His aggressive physicality jars. In so many ways, Abbott is at odds with the culture which shapes educated opinion in Australia.

Accordingly, many are blinded to his effectiveness as a political leader. They deplore Abbott’s simplistic approach to issues but overlook the striking power of his messages, his knack for encapsulating the Government’s problems, and his ability to set the agenda. Gillard’s reshuffle, if it comes today, is partly aimed at countering this.

Much is made of Abbott’s low personal approval ratings. It is certainly true that low polling figures and low popularity is a dead zone for a party leader, but Abbott’s electoral support throughout this year has been consistently robust. A two-horse electoral contest is about much more than popularity and approval.

Most of all, as former WA Premier Geoff Gallop said yesterday, the Gillard Government’s weakness is Abbott’s strength. Whilst Abbott unnerves many of the traditional opinion makers in the media, academia and perhaps even in business, the Government’s unsteadiness unnerves the voters more.

Abbott may have fooled himself into thinking he would be in The Lodge by now. Perhaps it’s time for him to trim his sails. There is some unrest amongst his members about policy directions and personnel. He has rivals. The electorate might tire of his retail campaign. It might not hurt to broaden the canvas somewhat, even though some doubt he is capable.

But a sudden campaign turn 20 months out from the election? Why would he bother, given the position he’s in?

Just as Gillard has made a valiant attempt to run to her own timetable this year, so might Abbott ignore the advice coming his way. Both have more to gain from playing the long game.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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