To Win, Labor Must Make Good Use of Its Best Weapon: Tony Abbott
This op-ed originally appeared in today's Daily Telegraph.
Australia's longest ever election campaign has kicked off and frankly, day two could not have been worse for Julia Gillard. The arrest of Central Coast MP, Craig Thomson, has only gone to reinforce Labor's bad image in NSW where the ICAC inquiry into Eddie Obeid and his family dominates daily news bulletins. The added problem for federal Labor is that the election will be won and lost in NSW - particularly Sydney's west where it holds five of its ten most marginal seats.
Ironically, Labor's biggest asset in all this is the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott. Despite the Government's woes, he remains an unpopular and divisive figure in Australian politics who has managed to typecast himself as a conservative with decidedly mid-twentieth century values. Women are particularly unimpressed with him because of his controlling attitudes to issues such as abortion and birth control. Young people see him as a throwback to an era before the internet and smart phones transformed our lives. His appeal lies largely with elderly people, whose world view is closer to Abbott's - particularly his refusal to accept the need for urgent action on climate change. The net effect of all this is a deep public concern that Tony Abbott just doesn't have what it takes to be captain of the good ship Australia as it navigates turbulent domestic and international waters.
As a nation we have never felt comfortable with policies and arguments that are at the outer edges of the political spectrum. So, as Labor's campaign unfolds it must produce policies and programs that allow it to contrast its vision for Australia in the coming years with those of an Abbott led Coalition. Labor must focus on winning back the political centre. Abbott has a past in government on which he can be judged - he was the Health Minister who slashed $900 million in hospital funding to the States. He was in the Government which implemented WorkChoices. He wants us to forget about all this, but Abbott will have to contend with those in his Party who want to reinstitute a deregulated labour market - WorkChoices by any other name.
He will also be held to account for the actions of conservative Premiers around the country who have slashed and burned public sector services and jobs. Their actions make him vulnerable to the argument that this is what conservative governments do. This means that Labor will have to tailor its case to the circumstances prevailing in particular States.
In his time as Opposition Leader Abbott has made some very big spending promises, like his obvious attempt to attract the female vote - the Paid Parental Leave Scheme. He's also said he will abandon Labor's carbon tax. Unusually for a conservative leader, this will make him vulnerable to a "where's the money coming from?" campaign.
So, while Labor will have to run different campaigns in different States, the one central theme that must be the glue of this election is Tony Abbott's unsuitability for the role of Prime Minister.