CLIMATE SPECTATOR: Could Abbott lose the unloseable?

Most pundits have already long called Tony Abbott to win the next election, but a look at the last 20 years of political history suggests this is not a sure bet.

It is impossible to forecast a federal election more than twelve months out, especially as we can’t even be sure of the identity of the two candidates. That hasn’t stopped people from trying however, with no shortage of pundits lining up to call Opposition Leader Tony Abbott Australia’s next prime minister. The polls suggest they will be proven right, but polls can fluctuate wildly in the year of an election.

For the clean energy sector the next election is a big one. Abbott has insisted he will repeal the carbon tax, get rid of the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation and scrap Solar Flagships. As a result, it was no surprise to hear about the anxiety of the sector at the recent Clean Energy Week conference.

While we will further delve into likely Coalition climate and energy policy in coming days and weeks and months, first we look at whether Abbott is the sure thing many contend.

History

Sometimes looking to the past can give a hint at what could be ahead in the future. The last ‘unloseable’ election saw John Hewson tackle incumbent Paul Keating in 1993. Unfortunately for Hewson, history shows he was on the losing side of that battle as he discovered he couldn’t have his cake and eat it cheaply.

Hewson lost seats in his ‘unloseable’ election of 1993 on the back of the ‘birthday cake interview’ with Mike Willesee, despite the fact it was held when several key states (WA, Victoria and New South Wales) had Liberal leaders. One could at least argue Abbott may not find himself in the same birthday cake situation as Hewson given he is unlikely to give too much information in the current political climate of slogans being policy.

Now while Keating’s win in 1993 has its similarities to the next federal election, the most similar circumstance is arguably that of the Howard government victories of 2001 and 2004. A crushing victory to the Liberal National party in Queensland earlier this year led to the erroneous assumption that because the Libs hold power in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and WA, the 2013 federal election is won before its run.

Look back to 2001 however, and the polls were turned against Coalition prime minister John Howard, albeit not quite as resoundingly as they are currently again the ALP. NSW Labor premier Bob Carr held a strong majority in his state following the 1999 election, while Queensland Labor premier Peter Beattie won in a landslide 66 seats to 15 result in February of 2001. Labor also held sway in Victoria through a minority government led by Steve Bracks since 1999 and had a comfortable majority in WA with the Geoff Gallop government. Sound familiar?

It should, because swap Labor and the Coalition in the above paragraph and it is practically the same situation as today.

As of the 2001 federal election seats held in the states were:

QLD – Peter Beattie (Labor): 66 seats to the Liberal/National Coalition’s 15 seats.

NSW – Bob Carr (Labor): 55 seats to 33.

VIC – Steve Bracks (Labor): 42 seats (plus three independents siding with Labor) to 43.

WA – Geoff Gallop (Labor): 32 seats to 21.

Ahead of the 2013 federal election seats held in the states are:

QLD – Campbell Newman (LNP): 78-7

NSW – Barry O’Farrell (Liberals): 69-20

VIC – Ted Baillieu (Liberals): 45-43

WA – Colin Barnett (Liberals): 24 seats (plus four Nationals and three independents) to 28.

The story was practically the same as 2001 in 2004 when John Howard was re-elected once again, with the only real difference ahead of that federal election being that Bracks by then had a significant majority in Victoria.

While the past does not guide the future, it does teach us to take state elections with a grain of salt. It highlights the chances of Abbott winning in a landslide are not as high as some pundits have suggested in the wake of Coalition routs in NSW and Queensland. Indeed, it shows that he is no certainty to even win, something John Hewson would know all about.

Unpopularity

Tony Abbott’s approval rating is not that of a future prime minister. History is, as they say, ‘there to be broken’, but if an election were held today, Abbott would be the most unpopular Opposition leader to win a federal election since polling first came onto the national landscape six decades ago. At this point it should be noted that few prime ministers have seen their disapproval ratings at the low depths of Julia Gillard’s but it is hard to see a rout while perceptions of Abbott remain so modest.

Other potential problems

By the time the election comes any number of new issues could have hit the press, a point Howard understands given the Tampa crisis of 2001 spotlighted an issue where he could exploit Labor. Anything could crop up between now and late-2013 and that could also include the ushering in of a new ALP leader, one not haunted by the perception of the ‘carbon tax lie’. As the public begins to accept the mild impact of the price on carbon, a new leader will be able to shake off a key reason the policy is unpopular.

Then there is the potential for gaffes, with just one bad interview considered crucial in cruelling Hewson’s chances. Abbott hasn’t been immune from them in the past, so there’s nothing to say he will be immune in an election campaign.

A week may be a long time in politics, but 15 months is practically an eternity.

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