Abbott's changing the sermon

A new Tony Abbott is emerging as the Gillard government regains electorate approval. Direct attacks are losing their impact and if the Coalition is to defeat Labor then considered policy debate must be its new weapon.

Tony Abbott has reminded his party room of that old political rule: for as long as possible, make the other side the issue, not us.

For 18 months, Abbott succeeded. The heat was never off the Gillard government – whether it was an issue of competence or policy. It centred on "boats” and a "great big new tax” and the need for an urgent election.

Of course the ALP helped too. They are very good at talking incessantly about themselves – from ministers to relevance starved ex-leaders and backbenchers. "Sources” were also everywhere and invaluable in the grand plan for the resurrection of Saint Kevin.

The polls followed. Australians watched and heard a wandering rabble – and told the ever-present pollsters what they thought.

But seemingly out of nowhere the focus on domestic politics is ebbing away from issues of Gillard’s shaky hold on her high office and the demands of an election to the broad issue of; yes, we know all that Tony, but what are your plans?

The nil political effect of the carbon tax helped initially – but has not been the real reason.

Issues like the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski education reform, whilst seemingly unfunded, drew public support, in principle. They may have been sceptical about the government’s capacity to deliver their promise, but the ideas sounded right at least.

The MYEFO update was another instinctive policy matter. It saw a strange response from the Opposition. Joe Hockey went on a merry dance attacking the government’s modest hit on family entitlements. He obviously hadn’t read his own speech on the issue. Unfortunately, the influential and veteran scribe Laurie Oakes had – and laid bare the hypocrisy in a withering analysis.

The release last week of Asian Century white paper was also an interesting political moment.

The critics were all over it – too vague, motherhood, "tell us something we don’t know”, un-costed and so on. But the response in the so-called "new media” and letter writers to Gillard’s prime time interviews on TV and radio told a different tale. Ordinary people kind of "got it” – it wasn’t about government doing all the heaving lifting and paying. It was up to industry, to families, to the media and so on. Learning an Asian language sounded smart.

Even the simple matter of deregulating wheat sales caused an outbreak of feeble timidity and internal politics from the pro-market Liberal Party – and led to unflattering media.

So what’s been noted is that the Gillard government has been doing what we pay them to do – govern, as best they can. Forget all the internal rubbish. Just get on with your jobs.

Slowly, according to polls, the government is starting to resurrect itself.

That means some pointed questions are finally being asked inside the Liberal and National party rooms. And these questions go to core strategy. Is our job to hold the government to account, by whatever means and words? Or is our first job to present an alternative vision and public policy outline?

Do we keep babbling about the effects of the carbon tax when no-one is listening – especially when what we say is often just a concoction?

The fate of opposition leaders, ultimately, is in the hands of mostly anonymous party room members and each week those fractious, nervous and self-interested people devour polls. Just ask Bill Hayden, (even John Howard in 1989), John Hewson, Alexander Downer, Kim Beazley, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull. Party rooms are unforgiving meeting places.

Tony Abbott is no different. It is his task to hold the Gillard government to the highest account, but also answer public yearning for a credible alternative.

The balance is not easy. Issues of language, props, stunts, tone, when to support or oppose legislation, behaviour in Question Time (because it gets on telly) and so on must be handled – along with the perennial issue of policy release and timing of "headland” speeches.

There are tentative signs that Abbott is subtly changing. The smear aimed at Gillard over her long gone days at Slater and Gordon is now coming from the flaying female deputy, not from him. He’s less agitated and aggressive and involved in Question Time fracas – a small but notable change in political management. He’s attempting to come to grips with quiet speeches on issues of productivity and economic management.

The election is likely ten to eleven months away. I don’t buy this swirling "clearing the decks” argument out of Canberra around an early March/April election. The punters would simply see it as a self-preserving stunt, and sweep the government away.

In the months to come, Gillard could still be easily tripped. The ALP could keep yabbering on about themselves, as for example the farce surrounding self-centred Minister Ferguson’s dummy spit over a resources tax comment from Rob Oakeshott. Also, the forecast Budget surplus could melt away – a political disaster.

Then too, the polls could keep tightening and buoy the government’s political mission. They could even act as a catalyst for boldness in public policy.

As we are inevitably reminded, tomorrow’s Melbourne Cup is never won by a faint-hearted animal. Nor is the favourite – burdened by expectation – yet past the post. It all depends on luck, tactics in running and all that meticulous and detailed long-term preparation that’s happened away from the spotlight.

The parallels are obvious and clear.

Alister Drysdale is a Business Spectator commentator and a former senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett.