Much of the political and media comment over the weekend suggested that quite a few Australians want Tony Abbott’s ”stop the boats” policy to fail. Not because they support people smugglers or because they are sympathetic to the Indonesian government. But because they have yet to accept the reality that Tony Abbott is prime minister and that his election-winning policies might work in government.
This was evident on Q&A last week. The panel was politically unbalanced, as usual. This time, the break-up was three left-of-centre types (Germaine Greer, Hanna Rosin, Dan Savage) to one right-of-centre type (the former revolutionary socialist now conservative Peter Hitchens).
Then it was over to Greer who declared that, for her, ”the greatest mystery is that Tony Abbott is a Rhodes Scholar”. Whereupon the audience went wild with approval.
It so happened that the only unanimity on the panel occurred when presenter Tony Jones took an approved question about the British Conservative Party and Tony Abbott. Hitchens opposed Abbott from the right, describing him as part of ”modern fake conservatism”. Then it was over to Greer who declared that, for her, ”the greatest mystery is that Tony Abbott is a Rhodes Scholar”. Whereupon the audience went wild with approval. Greer went on to describe the Prime Minister as ”extremely stupid”.
Yet the Q&A program has its uses. If only in demonstrating how out of touch ABC producers and audiences are with the majority of Australians who have just elected the Coalition to one of the biggest victories in Australian political history.
Before the 2010 election, many political operatives and commentators thought that Abbott was unelectable. This view was confidently stated by left-of-centre commentators such as Rod Cameron and Bruce Hawker. When asked on Q&A by Jones to explain Abbott’s victory, Greer put it down to ”the complete shambolic nature of the Labor Party”. If this were just a view of an entertaining polemicist, it would not matter much. But the Greer position is shared at the highest levels of the Labor Party.
On October 29, the able Labor Party national secretary George Wright addressed the National Press Club. Wright made the extraordinary statement that ”Labor didn’t so much lose the election as lose government” – whatever that might mean. He went on to state that Labor lost ”because of a lack of unity and too much infighting”.
Wright attributed the Liberal Party’s success to its federal director Brian Loughnane. Certainly Loughnane and his team did very well. But Wright’s praise for Loughnane made it possible for him to diminish Abbott’s performance. Wright declared that Abbott ”was neither all that respected nor all that liked”. He added: ”Mr Abbott likes to portray himself as The Iron Man, but when most voters looked at him what they saw was the mild-mannered Bruce Banner trying to suppress his inner Hulk.”
Maybe. Or maybe not. But the statistics depict a different outlook. Under Abbott’s leadership, the Coalition primary vote was 46 per cent compared with Labor’s 33 per cent and, after preferences, the result was 53.5 per cent to 46.5 per cent.
In the end, personal approval of a leader does not matter all that much – especially on the conservative side of Australian politics. Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, John Howard and Abbott were not that popular when they achieved victories in 1949, 1975, 1996 and 2013 respectively. Labor underestimated all four Liberal leaders when they were in opposition.
Certainly internal divisions during the time of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard harmed Labor. However, Labor’s essential problems turned on policy and on the perception that it ran an inefficient administration.
Bill Shorten’s approach as the newly elected Labor leader might work. But it is a risk. Shorten’s policies on climate change, asylum seekers and more besides are very much the agenda which Labor took to the 2013 election. The approach is based on the view that Labor went backwards in 2010 and 2013 because of internal divisions.
Currently Labor, with the support of quite a few journalists, maintains that Abbott’s ”stop the boats” policy has failed. Yet, according to available statistics, there has been a reduction in unauthorised boat arrivals of 75 per cent since the Coalition was elected and Indonesia has accepted two out of four boats turned back by Australia.
Which suggests that the Abbott-has-failed line is premature at best and probably based on wish-fulfilment.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute