How Labor made Abbott electable

Saturday, 31 July 2010 

How did this man become electable?

One of the first things that Gillard did when she entered the House as Prime Minister was to go over to Tony Abbott and say “Game on”. The message was clear. Now Abbott faced a real challenger to deal with his political attack on the government.

Since when was Abbott a threat? For most of this government, Abbott has been seen as unelectable. Obviously there has been some re-writing of this by some commentators. Gerard Henderson pointed out recently that latte drinkers have continually underestimated Tony Abbott. Clearly, as Mumble discovered, Gerard also enjoys a drop, having ruled out in 2007 the chance of Abbott ever becoming leader. Hold the froth.

Abbott didn’t seem that sure himself. Readers may recall Abbott’s highly unusual stabs at the leadership this term. The first, after lauding his “people skills” to widespread laughter, he withdrew before the vote (so Nelson could beat Turnbull). The second he ran for the leadership, then called it off, then called it back on again when Hockey’s candidacy collapsed. Even when he won, it was widely felt that this was more about taking advantage of the inevitable period of grace for a new government for the Liberals to focus more on their ‘values’, than winning votes. This “long game” seemed fair enough given Abbott’s remarkably mediocre approval polling from the public for a new opposition leader.

Nevertheless some of the media went through the motions of pretending it was “game on” again, as they did for Turnbull, especially as Rudd’s polling started to flounder. But after the public made its view clear through the worm during a typical Abbott performance in the health debate against Rudd, that quickly faded. Even as Rudd’s polling continued to drop, he still comfortably out-polled Abbott and no serious commentator thought Rudd would actually lose against Abbott, and certainly neither did that reliable fount of received wisdom, the betting market. But Abbott seemed really finished after Gillard took over. Whatever one thought about Rudd’s dumping, pitching Abbott against Gillard was supposed to have been a master-stoke, as it would bring out all the worst in Abbott in contrast. She would wipe the floor with him just as she did every Friday morning on Nine.

Yet when Gillard took over, something strange started to happen. Abbott’s approval rating started to creep up, even if initially, the Coalition’s polling did not. As this didn’t fit in with the narrative, it was largely ignored by the media (except for naughty Gerard trying to pretend it had been like that all along).

Partly, it was because of the dumping itself. While nobody seriously thought that Labor would lose the coming election, least of all the punters, Labor apparently did. However, despite Labor portraying this in electoral terms, rather than the grasp for power it really was, it was not that convincing. It’s probably doubtful that even the Liberal faithful believed it when Abbott told them that Howard rang to congratulate him for getting the greatest prize of any opposition leader, a Prime Minister’s scalp. In fact, it is likely that part of the reason Abbott was talking both himself up, and the party’s electoral chances (“famous victory”), was to shore up his position in the party, as his macho tactics were looking less appealing against Gillard than they were compared to the increasingly waffling Rudd.

But then Labor started to change tactics. Firstly we had the backflips. If people were doubtful that Abbott’s political agenda was really a threat to the Rudd government, Labor set about confirming it in everybody’s mind by giving in on all the areas where Abbott was making his case. The mining tax was too excessive after all. Abbott was right.

More importantly, Abbott was definitely right on border protection. It was an urgent issue that Labor needed to address (even though, as Gillard was saying in the same breath, the numbers were small, but Gillard could understand why people were worried about it … even though it was nothing to really worry about … etc. etc.)

By making a big issue about border protection, Labor solved an important problem for Abbott. Abbott had based his agenda on a myth that it was actually able to be implemented as Howard was supposed to have done. While asylum seekers may have become an issue for some, the practical difficulty of doing anything about it meant that Abbott would struggle to make a case of doing anything about it either, other than to hark back to a mythical past. Even claiming that Howard stopped the boats, couldn’t really deal with the scepticism that governments could really do much about it.

Labor set about helping Abbott by pretending it could. As the East Timor solution fell apart, Ministers like Smith tried falling back on the Ruddesque “no silver bullet” formula, but it was already too late. Labor’s insecurities about what was happening in its heartlands had taken everyone back to the Howard fantasy that Australia decides who comes anywhere near its borders (as no other country can). And no one can do Howard fantasies better than Abbott.

But this was nothing compared to what Labor would then do to help on Abbott’s biggest problem – the issue he had found himself coming to the leadership on, but that he had to distance from as soon as he did – climate change.

Climate change was a big vote loser for Abbott and highlighted the dilemma of Abbott’s project of upbraiding ‘values’ that even Howard realised in his final months had gone past its sell-by date. It may have made Abbott look ‘hard’ to the Liberal faithful, but through association it made Abbott look a little out to lunch and irrelevant to everyone else. What Labor did on this issue was extraordinary.

Here was an issue on which Labor’s position was not only popular, but still regarded as principled, and, crucially, since the fall of Turnbull, distinguished it from the Coalition. Yet Labor not only managed to walk away from it, but, through the Citizen’s Assembly, turn itself into a joke in the process.

The thinking behind climate change, and how Abbott was regarded as a serious threat was revealed in Hartcher’s discussion around the nerves that were over-taking Labor in the run up to Rudd’s dumping. At one point, even at this stage, Gillard was apparently proposing a ‘bipartisan approach’ with Abbott on climate change, effectively giving him veto over one of the government’s most important programs. Not only would this have been impossible with a leader that couldn’t even let Turnbull back in for the lack of room for a compromise, but rejection would have turned Labor into a joke even earlier than it did.

At the end of the day, Abbott did have an effect. His bravado and ‘values’ made little political sense in themselves, but fed into a Labor party becoming increasingly insecure with no real roots at home and a lack of support abroad. Over the course of the campaign, those insecurities have now even turned inwards to the Cabinet, summed up by Swan’s admission of lack of control over the leaks the other night and Gillard’s bizarre public threat to expel cabinet members who defy confidentiality after the election (what about now?). Now with some polls turning sour, they can only get worse, especially if a certain Queenslander recuperates quickly and starts reminding other Queenslanders what happened, leaving the rest of us to think about what could happen after 21 August that had, only a few weeks ago, been unthinkable.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 31 July 2010.

Filed under Key posts, Political figures, Tactics

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55 responses to “How Labor made Abbott electable”

  1. Kevin Rudd’s First Question Time After Becoming PM Again Reveals His Strategy | AusVotes 2013 on 29th June 2013 10:57 am

    […] until now, the Coalition has been ahead by huge amounts in the polls, taking advantage of the unpopularity and strategic errors of the Gillard government. But the Opposition is unpopular too, and now the ALP has a leader who can play the role of […]

  2. What Weaknesses and Strengths Does Tony Abbott’s World Affairs Journal Interview Reveal? | AusVotes 2013 on 4th July 2013 10:55 am

    […] but Ms Julia Gillard’s former government’s lack of political authority, and its strategic errors, exposed her and led to support for the ALP dropping sharply. In the week since Rudd’s […]

  3. What’s the left to do now? | The Moonbat on 9th September 2013 1:12 pm

    […] whilst this article is from 2010, Piping Shrike is correct in noting that in accepting Abbott’s framing that the issues of climate […]

  4. With Abbott elected, what’s the left to do next? | AusOpinion on 9th September 2013 1:25 pm

    […] Firstly, whilst this article is from 2010, Piping Shrike is correct in noting that in accepting Abbott’s framing that the issues of climate change, the mining tax and asylum seekers were a problem the ALP immediately made Abbott electable. As I’ve argued in the past, a lack of leadership on the issues that matter have allowed Abbott to frame the debate – leading this election to be fought on conservative terms rather than progressive ones. For some reason many in the left still have this idea that progressive ideals are losing ideals – that the population is inherently conservative. In doing so we cede ground before we even begin – we lose the election before we get started. […]

  5. With Abbott elected, what’s the left to do next? | The Moonbat on 9th September 2013 1:31 pm

    […] whilst this article is from 2010, Piping Shrike is correct in noting that in accepting Abbott’s framing that the issues of climate […]

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