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Memo Tony: Shit’s happening

15 Feb 2011

First published on The Drum: 15/02/2011

That philosopher to the common-folk, Tony Abbott, is this week dealing with his own slings and arrows as he enters the political twilight zone of disapproval from which some never return.

Despite ongoing difficulties within the Labor Government, Abbott is showing no signs of establishing himself as anything more than an attack dog whose fortunes rise when he runs negative on issues that happen to also be currently unpopular with the public.

This leaves him exposed when he has a bad week, such as the past one when he split his front bench by attempting to come up with a way of paying for flood reconstruction by cutting back anti-terrorism programs before nearly jobbing a TV reporter.

As this week’s Essential Report shows the response has been a sharp rise in disapproval to 46 per cent and drop-off in approvals to 37 per cent. To put this into perspective, the ALP moved on Kevin Rudd when his disapproval rating hit 47 per cent, with 41 per cent approval.

Q. Do you approve or disapprove of the job Tony Abbott is doing as Opposition Leader?

18 Jan 29 Mar 5 Jul 16 Aug 20 Sep 18 Oct 22 Nov 20 Dec 17 Jan 2011 14 Feb 2011
Total approve 37% 33% 37% 41% 43% 39% 40% 39% 42% 38%
Total disapprove 37% 50% 47% 44% 37% 45% 40% 39% 37% 46%
Strongly approve 5% 8% 8% 9% 12% 8% 6% 9% 7% 8%
Approve 32% 25% 29% 32% 31% 31% 34% 30% 35% 30%
Disapprove 20% 28% 23% 22% 21% 22% 22% 21% 22% 24%
Strongly disapprove 17% 22% 24% 22% 16% 23% 18% 18% 15% 22%
Don’t know 26% 16% 16% 15% 19% 17% 19% 22% 20% 16%

Now before I am accused of partisan analysis (yes, as by bio discloses my company provides advice to progressive organisations), I was one of those who warned the Left not to under-estimate Tony Abbott when he first took over the Liberal leadership.

My basic argument at the time was that Abbott was a master at negative politics who had convinced Australians to vote against a Republic because they don’t like politicians.

Central to this was an ability to turn ‘ordinary folk’ against the political elites who drink café lattes and debate national identity. If you looked at the ‘yes’ vote in the referendum, the most accurate predictor of voting intention was not party alignment but average income.

I was concerned at the time that Labor’s failure to explain its approach to climate change created a similar opportunity, beautifully summarised by a cab driver who opined “what would these scientist know? All they have ever done is gone to uni!”

Abbott constructed his ‘Big New Tax on Everything,’ but never quite got it past the road test stage as Labor threw in the towel before the fight had started. But you could see Abbott on top of his game, intimidating an opponent into capitulation.

You could argue that Abbott’s role as Opposer-in-Chief reached its high point during the Federal Election campaign, in what was effectively a battle between two oppositions (or anti-Rudd groupings). Here he released his four carefully researched points of things he opposed (debt, taxes, waste and boats) and showed great focus and discipline in talking about little else.

By election night, Abbott had managed to bring his disapproval rating to a level below Labor’s primary vote – this is really the condition precedent to lead across party lines, people may vote against you, but they don’t actually hate you.

But this is as good as it has got – and likely it is as good as it will get. Because when you throw bombs for a living, chances are there will always be a few that will blow up in your face.  And when they do, the polls are unforgiving.

A look at the disapproval rating over the past 12 months illustrates this point. This is the third time Abbott’s disapproval rating has surged.

The first was in March 2010, straight after the health reform debate, Kevin Rudd’s last great moment as PM where he showed how running as a positive nation builder above the grubbiness of political point- scoring can win you (albeit) short-term adulation.

What Rudd really did was lure Tony Abbott into a trap, where Abbott’s natural tendencies to throw bombs had him portrayed as someone who was against fixing up the health system.

The second surge came in the days after the Federal Election and the tortuous power-sharing negotiations as Abbott came to the realisation that he would not be able to form government.

What was natural disappointment boiled over in negativity and resentment based on a conviction that the Coalition had been robbed. Again. Disapproval surged as the Liberals were seen to actively walk away from the ‘new Paradigm’ they had openly embraced when power was in the offing.

And now the third surge from opposing the flood levy. The interplay with public opinion on this instance is a little more complex – as we charted there is no great love for a levy, but there is a recognition that money needs to be found from somewhere. Where Abbot appears to have got himself into strife over the last week was using the cost-cutting to run other political agendas – such as targeting foreign aid, without thinking through the consequences.

Then there were the pictures of a gob-smacked Abbott eye-balling Channel Seven’s Mark Reilly and whether the yarn about comments caught on film was valid or not stopped being an issue, because we had a politician who was speechless. And angry.

All of which leaves Tony Abbott in a difficult position. A bit like an actor who has been typecast, unable or unwilling to break out of doing what he has always done – running hard, attacking his enemy, playing politics on every issue.

If Abbott wants to go down in history as anything more than the most successful Opposition Leader in history he needs to change his public persona fast. If not ‘Opposer-in-Chief’ may be a fitting epithet.

– Peter Lewis: Director, EMC