The unintended riot near the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra on Australia Day serves as a reminder that Labor has an obsession with Tony Abbott. Yet an empirical examination of the opinion polls suggests the Opposition Leader is not Labor’s essential problem. Rather, the ALP’s political difficulties turn on policy – steroids most notably, its action on climate change.

For a glimpse of Labor’s state of delusion, look no further than the events at The Lobby restaurant on January 26. On the available evidence, it appears that Tony Hodges, Julia Gillard’s press secretary, thought it would be a good idea if some indigenous Australians from the tent embassy confronted Abbott (either verbally or physically) at The Lobby. Why?

As Greg Turnbull, Paul Keating’s one-time media adviser, said on ABC News 24 on Sunday, this was a knuckleheaded idea. Abbott would have experienced no political downside had he, alone, been confronted by radical Aborigines from the tent embassy. A smart political judge would have assessed such a scenario as a positive for the Opposition Leader.

Moreover, as is well known, Abbott has a history of supporting indigenous endeavours and has Aboriginal friends and associates. So why did Hodges do what he did? Presumably because he was so obsessed with Abbott that his judgment deserted him. It’s much the same with the secretary of Unions ACT, Kim Sattler, who passed the Hodges message to some tent embassy personnel.

Whatever the exact course of the message, it seems that the recipients believed what they wanted to believe.

This is a common psychological phenomenon. The demonstrators, and more besides, thought Abbott was the kind of person who would call for the tent embassy to be demolished. In fact, of course, he did not.

The likes of Hodges and Sattler did not act automatically. For more than two years, members of the inner-city left have been warning that Abbott poses a threat to democracy and civil order. The group consists of educated leftists and social democrats alike and comprises authors, academics, bloggers, commentators, journalists, professionals and public servants.

Their views are evident to anyone who reads the ABC’s online publication The Drum or the letters pages of the broadsheet newspapers.

The problem for Labor is that many Australians do not hold this position and support Abbott’s social conservatism and economic policies.

In August 2010, Abbott scored about as much support as Gillard. Now the Coalition leads Labor by a large margin in the polls.

Clearly, the electorate does not regard Abbott as a threat.

And nor do some sensible, left-of-centre commentators who know him. In October last year, publisher Louise Adler wrote that she did not recognise Abbott in Susan Mitchell’s attack biography, Tony Abbott: A Man’s Man.

Labor’s present political discontents stem not primarily from Abbott but, rather, from its commitment to a carbon tax leading to an emissions trading scheme.

Kevin Rudd’s problems began when Abbott replaced Malcolm Turnbull and campaigned against the ETS. This was made clear when Herald journalist Lenore Taylor broke the story in late April 2010 that Labor had temporarily junked its ETS policy. She attributed this decision to “a bid to defuse Tony Abbott’s ‘great big new tax’ attack”.

On his blog on The Monthly’s website, Robert Manne calls for Rudd to replace Gillard. He writes that “for its first nine months the Gillard government polled respectably” but Gillard’s support began to fade in April last year.

True. What’s missing is any mention of the fact the Gillard government’s support began to fall once the Prime Minister announced, in late February last year, in the presence of the Greens, that Labor would introduce a carbon tax. The combination of a “great big new tax” and a broken election promise has made life difficult for Labor ever since.

The evidence suggests many Labor operatives are in denial about the impact of Rudd’s and Gillard’s climate change policies on the ALP. On Q&A last March, Lachlan Harris described the carbon tax as “the best decision Julia Gillard has made”. The opinion polls, for the moment at least, indicate that Harris is deluded.

It appears that Australians are more concerned with the cost of electricity than with the anti-Catholic sectarianism which fires up much of the inner-city criticism of Abbott, or with the stance the Opposition Leader takes on such issues as Aboriginal advancement, asylum seekers and same-sex marriage.

The next federal election will not be decided on anyone’s position on the tent embassy. It is only delusion, fired by obsession, which would lead to any other conclusion.

Or, in Greg Turnbull’s terminology, the belief of a knucklehead.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.