Last Thursday, the former prime minister Bob Hawke stood outside Parliament House, next to Julia Gillard, and declared: “Now, I don’t mind Tony [Abbott], he’s not a bad bloke. But, as I said during the [2010] campaign, he’s as mad as a cut snake.”

Hawke likened the Opposition Leader to a wounded serpent during the 2010 campaign. The problem with Hawke’s analysis is that the Coalition, led by Abbott, won 43 per cent of the primary vote and 49.9 per cent of the two-party preferred vote.

If his analysis is correct, what does this make of Gillard’s Labor – which won 38 per cent of the primary vote and 50.1 per cent of the two-party preferred vote? Surely the former ALP leader does not believe that a Labor government at the end of its first term was almost defeated by a madman? Clearly Hawke is just one of the many who have underestimated Abbott.

Abbott is criticised by sections of the press gallery and some commentators who would like to see him replaced by Malcolm Turnbull. This group does not agree with the Opposition Leader’s stance on climate change and feels uncomfortable with his social conservatism. Yet Abbott currently has the support of a clear majority of Liberal Party MPs along with the backing of the Nationals – the Liberals’ Coalition partner.

Moreover, the opinion polls suggest Abbott’s unapologetic negativity is working. In April last year, Kevin Rudd put his emissions trading scheme on hold because he and his advisors – including Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan – believed that Abbott would win the election on an anti-ETS platform. Now there is concern in Labor ranks that Abbott may defeat Gillard on an anti-carbon tax platform.

The essential role of an opposition is to oppose. The Liberals have won elections from Labor on three occasions: Menzies in 1949, Fraser in 1975 and Howard in 1996. All ran negative campaigns against an ageing or prematurely ageing Labor administration. Technically, Fraser was the caretaker prime minister at the December 1975 election but, if the Whitlam government had not been dismissed, he would have won from opposition.

Yet Menzies, Fraser and Howard all had a few positive lines. In 1949 the Coalition promised to put value back in the currency. In 1975 the focus was on good government. And in 1996 the electorate had an understanding of what Howard would do with respect to privatisation, tax reform and industrial relations. Abbott needs to instil some positive lines into his unrelenting, and so far successful, attack on Labor. There is room to appeal to the Coalition’s support base in the suburbs and regional centres, namely small- to medium-sized businesses. Here the Howard government’s successes and failures provide a lead.

Howard managed to abandon the unfair dismissal laws which inhibit small business (and are a disincentive to employment) but he failed to slash government regulation. There is some risk in Abbott opening up the industrial relations debate again but it would give him the opportunity to appeal to small business while providing some hope to welfare recipients who want full-time employment. And cutting red tape can both appeal to voters and reduce expenditure.

Last week on ABC Radio 702, Deborah Cameron ran the familiar line that Abbott has a “problem” with women. However, since 49.9 per cent of Australians preferred him as prime minister last August, Gillard must have a problem with men. Neither proposition is accurate.

Despite the “mad monk” caricature, Abbott is both pragmatic and stubborn – like many successful politicians. However, he would be well advised to run with a couple of positive lines and consider placing some of the well-performing young Coalition backbenchers (including Jamie Briggs, Kelly O’Dwyer and Joshua Frydenberg) on his front bench.

Then there is the matter of the Greens. The Liberal Party succeeded in Victoria last November following its decision to preference Labor ahead of the Greens. Abbott could run a similar strategy federally. Likewise, in the Senate, the Coalition can side on occasions with Labor, to the exclusion of Bob Brown and the Greens. This would make Abbott look more positive without diluting his political message.

Abbott is not mad and he has a certain appeal to those who voted Labor in 2007 and 2010 in the suburbs and the regions. He may defeat Labor on a totally negative attack but a few more positive lines would help the Coalition on the long road to 2013.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.