Last September, David Marr began his essay Political Animal with an unequivocal statement: “Australia doesn’t want Tony Abbott. We never have.” At the time, the Coalition was well ahead of Labor, then led by Julia Gillard, in the opinion polls.
Last Sunday, the morning after attending the Liberal Party’s victory celebration at the Four Seasons hotel, Marr wrote: “Abbott is not their leader yet”. The reference was to the Liberal Party faithful.
And now for a dose of reality. At the 2013 election, Abbott led the Coalition to one of its biggest victories. Its two-party preferred vote is now at 53.2 per cent and is likely to rise slightly. Only Robert Menzies (1955, 1958), Harold Holt (1966) and Malcolm Fraser (1975, 1977) have done significantly better.
Abbott’s vote is close to the 53.6 per cent John Howard achieved in 1996 and exceeds the best Labor results of Bob Hawke (1983) and Kevin Rudd (2007).
When Abbott was elected Liberal leader in 2009, the party was deeply divided on the proper approach to climate change. There was also tension with the National Party.
Within a short time, Abbott had united the Liberal Party and consolidated the Coalition. Then Labor panicked – initially by junking the carbon pollution reduction scheme and later by replacing Rudd with Gillard. Labor was able to scrape together a minority government after the 2010 election but it never re-established authority.
Abbott is the most successful opposition leader since Gough Whitlam. Becoming leader after Labor’s devastating loss in 1966, Whitlam reformed and united the ALP. He gained seats against John Gorton in 1969 and won against William McMahon in 1972. What Whitlam did in six years, Abbott achieved in just under four. Unfortunately, Whitlam’s good management did not carry over into government.
It is always unwise in politics to underestimate opponents. Much of Labor’s campaign against the Coalition has been motivated by Rod Cameron’s view, first expressed in December 2010, that Abbott was “unelectable”. This opinion was shared by Labor strategist Bruce Hawker.
Cameron is still at it. Interviewed on Monday by Fran Kelly on the Radio National program Breakfast he conceded that Abbott had run “a remarkably fine campaign”. But after stating that he hated being “churlish”, Cameron went on to declare that Abbott “enters the prime ministership not a popular figure and he’ll have his work cut out to become one”. Kelly did not remind Cameron that he had once branded Abbott unelectable.
Yet Abbott was popular enough to reduce Gillard’s authority in 2010 and to defeat the apparently popular Rudd.
On Saturday night Hawke, one of Australia’s most successful prime ministers, cut through the pro-Labor rationalisations. Appearing on Sky News, he said Labor had “suffered a truly massive defeat”. Correct.
Some academics are out of their depth when analysing the Liberal Party and its leaders. In 1993, Judith Brett wrote that “the Liberal Party in the 1990s seems doomed”. The Coalition won office within three years. In 2007, Norman Abjorensen commented that the Liberal Party “could soon be over” and predicted its replacement by a “new centrist party”. The Coalition was back in office within six years.
Abbott replaced Malcolm Turnbull shortly before byelections in the Sydney seat of Bradfield and the Melbourne seat of Higgins. On December 5, 2009, the morning of the elections, Brett prophesied in The Age that under Abbott’s leadership “the Liberals risk becoming a down-market protest party of angry old men and the outer suburbs”. On the eve of the Higgins by-election, Robert Manne in The Australian canvassed the possibility of the Greens winning and suggested this could lead to “the destruction of the Liberal Party”. Manne sneered at Abbott as the “troglodyte-in-chief”. The Liberals comfortably retained both seats.
As recently as July 16, journalist Michael Short wrote in The Age that “Tony Abbott now looks an even bet to emulate his former boss John Hewson who in 1993 lost what was widely considered an unlosable election”.
Short suggested Abbott should be replaced by Turnbull and concluded his piece by opining that, unlike Rudd and Turnbull, “Abbott probably does not have” what Short called the “X-factor”. Maybe. But he is now prime minister elect.
Those academics and commentators who branded the Liberal Party doomed and/or Abbott unelectable were hopelessly wrong. Labor would be well advised not to be influenced by such wish fulfilment in the future.
As to Abbott’s likely performance as prime minister, who knows? The evidence suggests he has been influenced by the good governance practices of Hawke and Howard. If so, this would be a promising start. Like the Liberal Party in 1983 and 2007, Labor is not unelectable – a reality Abbott understands.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.