Why Has the Abbott Opposition Gone Backwards so Quickly?
The drop in support for the Abbott Opposition and the corresponding rise in the Government's number is remarkable - but the big question is whether it can be sustained. According to Newspoll, in the last five months support for the Opposition has fallen by nearly 10 percent and Tony Abbott's preferred PM rating has slipped significantly behind Gillard 46 – 32%. This puts both Labor and the Coalition on 50%. Nielsen has Labor on 47% and the Coalition on 53%.
I don't believe there is any one reason for this turnaround but I will attempt here to identify the various contributing factors in no particular order of priority.
1. The election of Coalition State governments around the country.
In recent months we have witnessed an astonishing assault on public sector jobs and services by recently elected conservative governments - particularly in the Coalition stronghold of Queensland. Premier Campbell Newman's move to strip Government spending on public servants and public services reached a crescendo recently when he announced that 14,000 public service jobs will go in Queensland with 4,100 of them in Health. Simultaneously Barry O'Farrell, the Liberal Premier of NSW, announced $1.7 billion in cuts to Education and $750 million in reduced Health services.
Cuts in Victoria under Baillieu have been less severe, but still noticeable. Incredibly, in South Australia, one of the last Labor States in the nation, Liberal leader, Isabel Redmond, last week promised to cut 20,000 public service jobs.
No one should underestimate the damage this has done to the Liberal "brand" - especially when the Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has already announced 12,000 jobs will go from the Australian Public Service if the Coalition wins office. Given the growing list of expensive promises being made by Abbott, the public need no convincing that the Tories would take the knife to the public sector.
2. Perceptions of disunity between the Nationals and the Liberals.
In recent weeks we have seen quite vicious infighting over a number of significant policy issues. For example, Barnaby Joyce, the National's Deputy Leader loudly attacked the decision of the Government to approve the sale of the massive "Cubbie Station" in Queensland to Chinese and Japanese investors. Interestingly, Joyce's protest was just as noisily denounced by senior Liberals. This was just one of several internal spats which led Liberal Deputy Leader, Julie Bishop, in a well publicised intervention in the joint party room, to call for an end to the internal division.
In addition, Liberal senator, Cory Bernardi, this week came out with a bizarre statement connecting gay marriage and bestiality. The upshot was the removal of Bernardi as the Parliamentary Secretary to Abbott and a plea from Abbott to his caucus to stop "freelancing".
Conversely, while Kevin Rudd remains overwhelmingly the public's choice for PM, he has done nothing to detract from Gillard's leadership since his unsuccessful challenge in February. In fact, in recent days he has spearheaded the Government's attack on Newman and O'Farrell over their job cutting spree.
3. Revived concerns that Abbott is just too socially conservative and unpredictable.
The revelations by David Marr in his Quarterly Essay that Abbott once punched a wall on either side of the head of a female political rival when he was a university student has revived concerns about Abbott's attitude to women. It is well known that he has very conservative ideas on issues such as abortion and has a peculiarly old fashioned attitude to women. Remember his clanger in the 2010 election when he referred to the Australian "housewives" doing the ironing?
4. Are Turnbull and Hockey starting to circle?
Meanwhile, in significant acts of "wind sniffing", both Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull have been lifting their profiles in recent weeks. Last week Hockey was the subject of a gushing opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review, where the author even managed to describe Joe as "Clintonesque".
This profile lifting by Hockey is particularly interesting since he is probably the more likely alternative to Abbott, even though Turnbull would be much more popular.
5. Labor's renewed focus on more traditional policy areas.
In recent months Labor has started refocusing on issues that voters identify as "good" Labor values. It’s no coincidence that the Disabilities Insurance Scheme, an enhanced Dental programme and the implementation of Gonski's review of school education have all been announced in the last few weeks.
6. Abbott's negative attacks may be losing some of their lustre.
Abbott's main success has been in relentlessly attacking Labor over its alleged failings in dealing with asylum seekers and the introduction of a carbon tax. While neither of these issues has gone away for Labor, nevertheless it’s true to say that the opening of Nauru and Manus Island for offshore processing of refugees has taken a lot of the heat out of the "boat people" issue for Labor. Similarly, while there is still a lot of noise around the carbon tax issue, the compensation package does seem to have helped Labor.
Abbott's problem here is that his appeal within the Coalition has been built almost exclusively around his ability to attack Labor on these issues and drive down the Government's vote. It didn't matter too much that his personal support, adversely affected as it was by his relentless attacks, was low - provided Labor's vote stayed lower. Now however, his personal vote has collapsed and Labor's has jumped - this therefore, is a dangerous time for Tony Abbott in his leadership of the Opposition. He will be desperately hoping that Labor's revival is short lived - as much for his own sake as for his Party.
7. Abbott, uncharacteristically for a Tory, is promising to spend big.
The Opposition's attack line "where's the money coming from?" has been somewhat blunted by Abbott's own spending promises exceeding $70 billion. This black hole is made up of the $27 billion to cover the cost of scrapping the carbon tax, $37 billion in promises from the last election, $11.1 billion in foregone revenue from axing the mining tax, and promised tax cuts. It is unusual for conservative oppositions to be saddled with such large spending commitments - they usually make a virtue of their promise to lower government spending.
So why has Abbott been caught in this trap of his own devising? The answer, in part at least, is that he has been forced to look like he's committed to reducing greenhouse gases by those in his own constituency who worry about this phenomenon. However, he's opposed to a tax or price on carbon - hence his so called "direct action" plan which will be funded through the Budget.
Similarly, he's opposed to Labor's Mining Tax but that tax also gives Company Tax cuts to small businesses - a traditional Coalition constituency. So, as with the Carbon Tax, he has tried to match Labor's promise but says he will fund it through the Budget.
Likewise, his very expensive promise to have a generous Parental Leave Scheme was a direct pitch to women in an attempt to soften his poor standing with them.
So, all this means he has lumbered himself with a big spending agenda. Not only does this dampen his attack lines on Labor, but also creates tension within his own Party whose traditionalists worry about Abbott's unorthodox stand on issues like industrial relations.
8. Abbott on Industrial Relations.
As Marr and others have observed, Abbott's political pedigree is not Liberal - its the Democratic Labor Party and B.A. Santamaria's National Civic Council. The DLP was at its heart a socially conservative, Catholic offshoot of the Labor Party - as such it was quite distinct from the Liberals despite the fact that its preferences almost always went to the Coalition. Attacking the working conditions of workers was never a significant part of the DLP's agenda. So, for Abbott deregulating the workplace is not his life's work as it is for Liberals like Peter Costello or Peter Reith. However, he did have responsibility for "WorkChoices" as a minister in the Howard Government, so he cannot deny his role in its implementation.
Until recently Abbott has been able to avoid being forced to defend the highly unpopular "WorkChoices” legislated by the Howard government in its last term. However, in recent months Abbott has come under pressure to have a more employer friendly policy on industrial relations. He has grudgingly made concessions to the "dries" in his party and in so doing has allowed Labor to point to a return to a WorkChoices style approach by a Coalition government. This fear hasn't taken hold strongly in the community but it won't take much for alarm bells to start ringing in living rooms around the country as people recall the impact it had on living standards.
So, what does all this mean for the government and the Opposition? The rise in its two party preferred vote is good news for Labor, but the big question is whether it can be sustained or whether the Opposition will staunch the bleeding either by addressing each of the issues I've listed above or by removing Abbott and replacing him with a more popular leader.
While Labor is picking up in the polls, it still languishes at 36% primary support in Newspoll and 34% in the Nielsen poll - still below the 38% Gillard managed to secure in 2010 to get a hung Parliament.
All this means one thing - the coming months will be a fascinating time in Australian politics.