It is sometimes said that being opposition leader is the toughest political job in Australia. Sure, the person who holds this position does not have to make difficult decisions that befall prime ministers. But the likes of Anthony Albanese have highs whereas the likes of Peter Dutton are primarily involved in managing their parties and convincing the electorate they can improve the lot of most Australians.

This week’s Newspoll was not good news for the Opposition Leader and the Coalition. The Australian’s report on Monday was headed “Coalition support nosedives to equal lowest on record”. That reflected the poll’s finding that the Coalition primary vote was at 31 per cent – down from 35.7 per cent at the May election.

However, the estimate of the two-party-preferred vote – that is, the total vote after a notional distribution of preferences – was 43 per cent to Labor’s 57 per cent. A dreadful result, to be sure. But it is higher than the Coalition’s result immediately after Kevin Rudd led Labor to victory in 2007.

Dutton’s satisfaction rate of 35 per cent to 43 per cent dissatisfied was not unreasonable considering the Coalition’s heavy loss of seats in May. In any event, the evidence suggests the result is the least of his current worries.

Only four Liberal Party leaders since World War II have led the Coalition to victory from opposition – Robert Menzies (1949), Malcolm Fraser (1975), John Howard (1996) and Tony Abbott (2013). All were different leaders. But all had something in common; namely, not one was particularly popular when winning office when prevailing over Labor’s Ben Chifley, Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating and Rudd, respectively.

And there was something else. All members of the successful Liberal Party quartet campaigned on policy that contrasted them from Labor’s incumbent prime minister at the time.

Menzies was shattered by his loss to Chifley in September 1946. However, he used Labor’s disastrous attempt to nationalise the private banks in 1947 to campaign on an anti-socialist agenda two years later.

Then there was Fraser. In 1975, he presented as an alternative to the gross economic incompetence of the Whitlam government, which reached its lowest ebb in 1974. Fraser was perceived as a hard-line anti-communist and anti-socialist who could restore stability to the nation.

In time, Fraser came to disappoint because of his failure – part unwillingness, part inability – to implement substantial economic reform. However, as Fraser’s treasurer, Howard did achieve some reform at this time.

In his 2006 Boyer Lectures, published under the title The Search for Stability, former Reserve Bank governor Ian Macfarlane described the sale of Treasury notes in 1979 and Treasury bonds in 1982 as a “major reform … second only in importance to the float of the Australian dollar in 1983” by the Hawke Labor government.

After a period in the political wilderness, Howard came back to lead the opposition in January 1995. By then Labor was into its fifth term in office. In his recently published book A Sense of Balance (HarperCollins), Howard writes that “the Coalition won office in 1996 promising an industrial relations shake-up, further privatisation, a family tax benefit plan and other economic reforms”. He points out that his subsequent victories in 1998, 2001 and 2004 followed campaigns on policy.

Then there was Abbott. In 2009, before becoming Liberal leader, Abbott wrote his political manifesto Battlelines (MUP). After narrowly losing in 2010, he won office three years later with an agenda based on abolishing the carbon tax and implementing wide-ranging border security.

Menzies, Fraser, Howard and Abbott were never particularly popular when winning office or governing Australia. But they won 15 elections between them and only Fraser and Howard were defeated at an election after three and four terms respectively.

In A Sense of Balance, Howard expresses regret and disapproval that Abbott was “pulled down” when prime minister and replaced by Malcolm Turnbull in September 2015. He also believes Labor committed a “huge blunder” by replacing the incumbent Rudd with Julia Gillard in June 2010.

While recognising the real achievements of Scott Morrison and his government at a time of pandemic with the resultant economic problems, Howard regards the Coalition’s “single largest failure … was that it did not present to the Australian people a clear policy manifesto for the future”. He notes that the Greens won three seats and the Nationals held their existing seats (in the face of an anti-Coalition swing) while proclaiming clear policy positions.

As mentioned, few Liberal Party leaders have been popular for a time while in office – unlike Labor’s Whitlam and particularly Hawke and Rudd. Yet Whitlam and Rudd were in office for only three years each. Dutton is unlikely to be popular. He needs, however, to be respected. And precedent indicates that the best way for an opposition to be respected is to have some unequivocal policy positions.

Of the recent Coalition leaders, Howard is probably best remembered for his stances on industrial relations, tax reform and foreign policy. With Abbott it is industrial relations (to a lesser extent), border security and foreign policy.

At the moment the Coalition’s climate change policy is unfashionable in the electorate, which damaged the Liberal Party in some of the most well-off and highly educated seats in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. This is likely to remain the case while the economy remains strong and Labor’s carbon emissions reduction policy works. If an economic downturn occurs, energy prices increase dramatically or blackouts take place, then the political outcome could well change.

In the meantime, it would benefit the Coalition if Dutton made politics more interesting. Commenting on Sky News’ The Bolt Report on Monday, former Victorian Liberal Party operative Michael Kroger said: “The left are running a thousand campaigns – gender, race, the voice, global warming, identity politics, the republic.” He asked: where is the Liberal Party’s grand narrative?

Menzies, Fraser, Howard and Abbott did not find an opposition leader’s lot an easy one. But they all developed a narrative that inspired their supporters and ultimately prevailed in the electorate.