Abbott's model to wreck a government may come back to bite him
Tony Abbott is promising again and again that he will lead a "methodical, measured, calm" government. But he's overlooking something. He's just finished writing a rip-roaring new guidebook on how to be a successful opposition.
It's the Abbott model of how to destroy a government. And guess what? The Labor party noticed.
Rule No. 1: Don't give the government a thing. Fight it up hill, down dale, day in day out. Be strident, be angry, be unreasonable. Apply maximum pressure and see what cracks.
Rule No. 2: Don't allow the government to control the narrative. Make a lot of noise. Fill the airwaves with angry dissent and maximum outrage. Generate an impression of disorder. If you control the narrative, you control the psychological battlespace.
Rule No. 3: Exploit the deadliest of all contemporary policy issues, the one that was central to the downfall of the last three prime ministers: climate change. This remains a potent issue and will remain so for years.
And the Abbott model worked. "We limited Labor to six years," points out a quietly satisfied member of the Coalition leadership. "Labor under Hawke and Keating had 10 years; we had 11 years under Howard. Labor is out after six."
So while Abbott wants to be methodical, measured and calm, will the Labor opposition let him?
Whether it's Anthony Albanese or Bill Shorten leading the Labor Party, you can be confident the opposition will apply the Abbott model.
Both men plan a combative, aggressive style and relentless pressure. Both are determined to keep Abbott's policy on climate change a centrepiece of contention.
Abbott gave Labor no quarter and can expect none in return. He showed new ways to crack a government and they will now be applied to him.
There are three obvious objections to this as a workable construct for the new opposition leader.
First, can't a new prime minister dominate the logistics, the policy and the psychology of a new parliament? Surely Abbott can resist Labor's efforts at payback.
Abbott already has slowed the pace of government and steadied the pace of media engagement. The incoming prime minister, a week after the election, is still incoming.
He's postponed the formalities of swearing in by a week. He's proposing a serenely slow resumption of Parliament. He has given no press conferences or media door stops for an entire week.
The supposedly relentless 24/7 media cycle? He's ignoring it, and the media cycle is starting to ignore him. This is exactly what he wants, putting sport back on the front page, as he's said, with the government in the background.
So why can't he simply continue as he's begun? Another prime minister, Julia Gillard, started with a very similar intention. Her government would play a long game and "not be worried about each day's six o'clock news", she told her caucus in her first remarks as leader.
She elaborated: "What I seek to be judged by is not necessarily the accumulation over a 24-hour period of the six or seven media cycles that are now in that 24 hours.
"What I would seek to be judged by is what gets done and what gets achieved. This business isn't about entertaining. It's about leading the country."
But Gillard soon discovered that while she might not have worried about the daily political news space, the opposition certainly did. It took full advantage. Her utopian long game was a losing proposition. Public opinion was being formed by the opposition in the daily media while Gillard was governing.
Oppositions have an inherent advantage - they have nothing else to do.
Five months after taking the prime ministership, Gillard was facing open criticism inside her own caucus meetings from MPs complaining that she was failing to "sell" Labor's achievements.
Gillard was forced to abandon her effort to maintain a stately distance from the media ruck.
When the Abbott government, inevitably, comes under pressure, when Labor inflames public opinion against it and the polls start to turn, Abbott will face the same dilemma.
The second objection to Labor's ability to turn Abbott's model against him is Labor itself. It's in disarray. Divided, defeated, demoralised, how can it bring a sustained attack on the new government?
The answer is that the Coalition was in exactly such a state when Abbott first arrived as leader.
After the defeat of the Howard government, the demoralised Coalition cycled unhappily through Brendan Nelson then Malcolm Turnbull before turning, by a single vote, to Abbott in a partyroom coup.
As Kerry O'Brien put it directly to Abbott on that very day, he'd been given a "very shaky mandate to lead a deeply divided party". O'Brien was right.
Abbott's most urgent task was to build a stronger leadership mandate and to unite his party. If he didn't master his party, it would quickly overwhelm him. This was why he created the Abbott model.
Abbott didn't become what Wayne Swan liked to call "the most negative opposition leader in Australia's history" as a matter of personal preference or by sheer chance. It was a matter of survival.
One of the architects of the Abbott model, a member of his inner circle, recently explained the strategy in a revealing moment of instructive frankness: "Tony needed to secure his leadership. To do that, before anything else, his job was to be competitive" against Labor. "That's got to be overarching."
Two things will follow if an opposition leader is seen to be competitive.
"First, people outside the game will look at you - you get lounge-room time." The adviser points to an opposition leader who's failed to do that - John Robertson, the NSW Labor leader. "He doesn't get a look-in."
And second, "you get to secure your leadership" against internal challenge.
"The most important thing is that you have to have unity and discipline, and that was very hard after losing power and losing John Howard." Without unity and discipline, a leader will be weakened, undermined, distracted and, ultimately, destroyed. This is the story of the Rudd-Gillard years.
It was Abbott's need to unify his party, to survive as leader, that explains why he was hyper-aggressive and super-confrontational from day one: "All the way through it was to keep maximum pressure on Labor and see what buckled. And everything buckled."
The first thing that buckled was Labor's resolve to persist with its promised emissions trading scheme; that, in turn, led to the downfall of Kevin Rudd; and that, in turn, set up the cycle of internal feuding that led to the downfall of Julia Gillard.
The Labor leader to emerge in four weeks' time will be in a very similar spot. The party is defeated and demoralised. The new leader - whether Albanese or Shorten - will be the winner of a divisive factional contest.
Albanese and Shorten are the leading exponents of factional warfare of their generation. Albanese is the leader of the national Left faction of the Labor party; Shorten is the champion of the national Right. This is old Labor, old politics, in the old style. This is the sort of factional warfare that both men grew up with.
If Labor needs some serious introspection after its defeat, this is not the way to get it. It is happening nonetheless. The party is running on ancient reflex.
Winning the leadership is critical to the factional power balance. The party's leadership has never been held by a member of the Left. This is why it's an irresistible prize for Albanese; it's why the Right is determined to defeat him.
Gillard was notionally a member of the Left in her earlier days, but neither the Left nor Right consider her to be a true member of that faction.
Her belief system and policy preferences confirmed her as a natural member of the Right, the faction that delivered her the prime ministership.
The winner of this contest will inherit a defeated, divided and deflated party, just as Abbott did in December 2009. The Abbott model will suit his needs, whether it's Albanese or Shorten.
The third objection to the viability of the Abbott model is that it depended on carbon policy. Abbott's assault on Rudd's ETS was indispensable in the Rudd downfall; his campaign against Gillard's carbon tax was every bit as important.
But surely Labor can't run hard against Abbott's carbon repeal policy? Hasn't the carbon tax been a fatal liability for Labor? Isn't it politically discredited beyond redemption? Albanese and Shorten can't be serious about persisting on this?
The biggest problem with the carbon tax wasn't the policy, but its provenance - it represented a broken promise, it was an emblem of betrayal, it was the basis for the abusive campaign against Gillard as "Juliar". With Gillard gone, it's just a carbon tax.
More important than Labor's view of the policy is its stance towards Abbott. The Abbott model showcased oppositionism as the ultimate belief, rather than belief in any particular policy. In other words, it's more important to oppose the government on a policy - any policy - than it is to consider the policy on its merits.
As Abbott said of the policy divisions in his own party on the day he took the Liberal leadership: "I am confident that what looked like deep divisions were more a function of us being asked to go against our natural instincts to support a government.
"Now, the natural instincts of an opposition are to oppose a government."
That's the lesson that Albanese and Shorten took from the experience.
Abbott wants to change policy by repealing the carbon tax while still pledging to cut carbon emissions. This is fraught, politically and scientifically.
It's fraught politically because Abbott needs to get the Senate to agree to repeal the tax. Labor and the Greens have a blocking majority in the Senate till July 1 next year, and thereafter Abbott will need to negotiate with a ragbag of untested independents.
It's fraught scientifically because no independent expert believes that Abbott's alternative - so-called direct action - can cut emissions as much as he's promising.
And as the climate changes, governments worldwide will go into a new round of global negotiations over the next year to agree to emissions cuts. Abbott's policy could become a failed promise at home and a negotiating liability abroad.
By opposing Abbott's carbon policy, Labor plans to capitalise on all his difficulties. They learnt from the master.