Abbott's long labour of love and hate

Tony Abbott accepts his next job will almost certainly be prime minister. But the coming year will only get tougher as he strives to stay on top of the polls by any means, fair or foul.

It’s the toughest gig in politics. Your enemies are in front of you, taunting – and behind you, whispering.

The pressure to meet grand expectations of voters and the demands of colleagues – all with vested interest – is unrelenting. The media is never more than an inch away.

No, it’s not being prime minister. It’s the job held now for exactly three years by Tony Abbott.

The prime minister has the job of delivering public policy, vision and leadership. It’s generally ordered, planned well in advance and comes with vast political and public resources. Sometimes it means having to respond to events of a distant past life and entanglements. But that’s part of the territory. It’s your judgement and how you handle it that counts, not the event itself.

For an Opposition leader, the job is simple – to win, by any means that are fair or foul. It was ever thus. And you attempt to do this with modest numbers of staff, along with some paid and unpaid help from business (in the case of the Liberal Party) and the unions (for the ALP).

Tony Abbott is one of 32 Opposition leaders in Australia since Federation – of whom 18 have gone on to become prime minister.

He’s already had one crack at it, and just missed.

But his colleagues kept the faith. They reasoned he would be tireless, relentless and tough.

Abbott has delivered. He has largely controlled the political debate – at least until recently. He had Gillard on the back foot over the issue of 'trust', framed as an assault on the carbon tax. He forced a Gillard retreat on 'boats', to a point where an internal brawl broke out on government backbenches. He kept the scribes focused on government as he pursued an early election mantra. He has managed to convince millions of Australians that the Gillard government is drowning Australia in debt.

On top of that he has kept the Gillard 'smear' campaign bubbling through the political device of becoming partially tranquillised, while his female deputy hurled smelly mud in all directions.

Of course, he has paid a price for that single-minded opposition. He’s loved and hated.

His so-called 'issues' with women have been documented. His character has been subject to analysis by commentators, bloggers and government ministers. Julia Gillard’s epic spray on Abbott’s character opened the floodgates and sparked a renewed focus.

As measured by published opinion polls (and no doubt by Liberal and ALP internal polls), voter dissatisfaction with Abbott is at unprecedented levels. At the same time his party’s vote (including the Nationals) is holding up and would currently produce a comfortable win, even allowing for the vagaries of the fortnightly pollfest. Of course, there’s no election in sight.

As with all Opposition leaders – ask Simon Crean, Kim Beazley, Alexander Downer or Brendan Nelson – his political future is inevitably linked with public opinion. No party will suffer an Opposition leader (or sometimes even a prime minister) who looks certain to lead it to defeat.

Who knows where public opinion will be in two months, six months or just before the election late next year? Generally that’s in the hands of government. We tend to look at what government is up to, and agree or disagree. If we disagree enough the vote goes to the Opposition.

In recent weeks, we’ve looked at the constant goal-post changing on the Gillard smear – including on her demeanour, her words and her tactics. And we’ve looked at Abbott’s exaggerated claims of law-breaking, and his manner and his argument.

Most of us can’t fathom the crime. We see and hear the invective, and still ask the one-word question: So?

It doesn’t help to keep reading of media retractions and corrections surrounding this saga. The dash for an 'exclusive' is now an entrenched part of the political landscape. Opinion that replaces fact-based and double checked reporting is now par for the course.

Tony Abbott knows and accepts that the next 10 months or so will be his last as Opposition leader. His next job will almost certainly be as prime minister.

But as we know in politics, the obvious does not always happen. Events previously unimagined intervene.

It’s one of the joys of prognosticating about politics – or even horse racing or economic data.

At this stage, Tony Abbott must be feeling a tad uncomfortable. While he has seemingly weathered the character storm, the argued 'over-reach' of recent times will have him with an eye on public opinion in the weeks ahead.

He will come to a judgement about policy rollout over the next few months, although I suspect most policies will be simply 'aspirational' as he’s got no money. He will make headland speeches and construct a vision as to how he sees Australia’s future. He has released a book of his own speeches about the future. He will try and keep the focus on government missteps and 'internals', although his final day argument in parliament against Gillard’s distant past life was tepid and contrived at best. He couldn’t 'put up'.

Abbott is prepared for an early election. He has to be.

However he will know deep down that Julia Gillard won’t fall for the "polls show we’re a possible chance if you go now, prime minister” trick. He knows that she has no option but to get on with her job which we gave her for three years. We won’t cop the games or the pretence.

That means another hard year of limelight for the holder of the toughest job in politics – and wariness of continued focus on those pesky polls that gauge public support as well as public disapproval, by everyone in front of him, and by everyone behind him.

And it means that in 2013, Tony Abbott may still be the story.

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