Abbott’s popularity crisis

With Tony Abbott struggling to gain traction with voters, the next election is set to pit an unpopular party against an unpopular leader. Donkey vote, anyone?

A few months ago I wrote that Opposition leader Tony Abbott “could lose the unloseable election”. The comments on the piece largely centred on the notion that either:

a) I was wrong, but it would be good if I were right; or

b) I was wrong, and probably a communist.

But while the Coalition has recently steadied in the polls, the swift comeback of Labor in September and October indicated Abbott really could lose the next election. And one word sums up why: unpopularity.

In the past few months Abbott’s popularity has gone from bad to awful. As pointed out a few weeks ago, he is now significantly less popular than the carbon tax he so vehemently opposes. Whether the Coalition accepts it or not, there’s a lack of voter appreciation for the leader of the opposition. The latest Nielsen figures, released on Monday, show he is the second most disliked opposition leader in the history of the 40-year poll, behind only Andrew Peacock in October, 1984.

Yet the Coalition remains ahead in the polls thanks to unflattering perceptions of Labor’s performance. It’s a case of ‘get them out’ rather than ‘get them in’.

In fact the shameful state of politics in this country over the past couple of years will likely see the next election a fight between those saying ‘get them out’ and those insisting ‘don’t let them in’. And when push comes to shove and people actually have to vote, there is a chance swing voters will opt for the prime minister they know over the one they don’t.

Jumping the gun

Abbott’s runaway margin in the polls saw leading media players declare him the 2013 federal election winner prematurely. Attention then turned to his policies; it was as if he had just won.

Around this time, the middle of 2012, he had what could politely be described as a ‘scratchy’ interview with Leigh Sales on ABC’s 730. Left to discuss the major policy issues of the day – carbon pricing, mining tax, industrial relations, asylum seekers – Abbott was sadly an empty vessel. Watching the interview – a must for anyone with an interest in politics – you sense he is desperately on the lookout to slip in a slogan.

The Coalition leader has been clinging to the concept that, as an Opposition party, you don’t need any policies. In fact, you’re usually considered wise to keep them to yourselves for fear they may be stolen by the government of the day. That in itself is a tragic indictment on our political system: ideas for the good of the nation kept bottled up for the good of a party.

But he is learning that if you are called the winner well before an election campaign, the media will look for policies to talk about and all they have received is a hard-lined asylum seeker ‘solution’ and plans to rip things up and tear things down – the carbon tax being the headline act.

How to crumble

The Coalition has largely defined its goals, but holds no concrete idea, publicly at least, on how it will reach them. The plans sound okay until you get to ‘how’, when the typical response is ‘we’ll get back to you before the election’.

If there is no ‘how’ before the election, the Coalition will crumble.

The upshot of this and the PM’s famous misogyny speech is that Abbott has been forced into playing back-foot politics. His biggest weapon – his attacking style – is now his greatest liability.

It is an amazing turnaround from early in the year when most pundits gave no hope of Julia Gillard remaining in the top job to the election, yet alone winning it. In all fairness, a strong opposition would have ensured Labor were not even in the race.

The Thomson and Slipper scandals have been unrelenting. The carbon tax lie lingers. The mining tax hardly endeared the party to anyone and doesn’t even raise much money. Then there’s a budget surplus promise that looks increasingly unlikely to be met. That’s not to mention money being thrown at the fragile car and aluminium industries, struggles getting asylum seeker policy right and the ever present ghost of its former leader.

A two term party, clinging to power thanks to the Greens and independents with a number of blunders on its record should be tumbling toward an unwinnable election. It is not.

Instead, we are now moving rapidly toward an election that will pit an unpopular party against an unpopular leader. The famous Australian ‘donkey’ may get more than a few votes.

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