It’s official. According to Julia Gillard, from now until election day, we will see the “real Julia”. It’s true Labor’s campaign managers have sanitised the Prime Minister to such an extent over the past month that she has sounded like an automaton rather than the vibrant politician who succeeded Kevin Rudd. It’s also true Labor’s campaign has been undermined by internal leaks directed at Gillard.
But this is only part of the story. Tony Abbott has presented himself as a strong leader of the Liberal Party and a formidable campaigner. Not everyone in the ALP underestimated Abbott. Graham Richardson, for example, warned his colleagues that Abbott would unite the Coalition’s base in a way that neither Brendan Nelson nor Malcolm Turnbull were able to do.
However, many Labor politicians, staffers and advisers did misjudge the Opposition Leader. So did quite a few journalists and academics, who projected their dislike of Abbott’s social conservatism onto the electorate at large.
Take, for example, Bruce Hawker, the chairman of the pro-Labor lobby group Hawker Britton. Abbott became Opposition Leader on December 1. Since then Hawker has used his regular appearances on ABC TV and radio and Sky News to dismiss Abbott as a man completely out of touch with the electorate at large and women in particular. Hawker became so convinced of Abbott’s unelectability that he failed to study the field evidence. In June he received two soft interviews on the Channel Ten Meet the Press program. On June 6, Hawker said Abbott’s policies provided “a very powerful message for Labor”. He declared Rudd would use Abbott to lead Labor to victory in the election.
Rudd’s colleagues clearly did not agree. He was replaced by Gillard on June 24. The following Sunday, Hawker appeared again. It was a case of same tune, different drum. This time, Hawker depicted the Labor leadership change as “a significant circuit breaker” and declared Gillard would soon set her own agenda. Missing from this analysis was any recognition that Abbott’s strong performance as Opposition Leader had put pressure on Rudd and might do likewise with his replacement.
It was much the same in parts of university land. Within a week of becoming Liberal Party leader, Abbott faced byelections in the Sydney seat of Bradfield and the Melbourne seat of Higgins. Robert Manne wrote in The Australian on the eve of the byelections that the Liberal Party had “imploded” and foretold “the destruction of the Liberal Party”. On the morning of the polls, Judith Brett wrote that Abbott’s accession to the leadership meant the “Liberals risk becoming a down-market protest party of angry old men and the outer suburbs”. Neither prediction survived the weekend.
Yet the prophecies have continued. Just over a week ago the social researcher Hugh Mackay virtually declared the election over, claiming the result is “essentially a formality: an opportunity for the electorate to ratify the recent change of prime minister”. Maybe. But this is certainly not the message of the recent findings by Nielsen and Newspoll. Moreover,
Gillard has not changed tactics because she shares Mackay’s view that Abbott does not even provide a contest.
The view that Abbott is unelectable reflects the mindset of the secular inner-city intelligentsia and finds expression among some journalists. There is a pervading view Australians, particularly women, will not vote for a party led by a social conservative who declares himself to be an imperfect Catholic. This was very much the theme of Liz Jackson’s Four Corners profile of Abbott in March. Even Manne acknowledged this was “the left-wing version” of the Opposition Leader. So far ABC TV has not aired a similar program on Gillard, where she is subject to cross-examination about her words and deeds of some three decades ago.
It would be foolish to predict the election outcome. But the evidence suggests Abbott has a certain appeal among lower-socio-economic groups in the outer suburbs and regional centres where life is quite tough and long-term and youth unemployment disturbingly high. Outside the inner city, Abbott’s social conservatism is not a reason for sneering – since most Australians are conservatively inclined.
It makes sense for Gillard to be Gillard. Yet this necessarily has come about because Abbott insisted on being Abbott, irrespective of those who dismissed him as a fanatical “Captain Catholic”. As a Howard
government minister, Abbott did not seek to change the abortion laws and he was not the driver of the Work Choices legislation. He is a pragmatic politician with certain convictions. Which is why Labor is concerned about losing office on August 21.