Is Abbott his own worst enemy?

Tony Abbott will need to put in some hard work to turn around his numbers in time for next year's election, including taking a break from the usual gaffes that could easily sink a comeback.

Crikey

So what is the size of the Abbott Discount? How much is the presence of Tony Abbott as leader weighing down the Liberal vote? And in what circumstances would his colleagues move to dump him?

Well it's not that simple, and here's why.

Labor's, and Julia Gillard's, recovery in the polls has been the story of the last three to four months. It has coincided both with the barely-noticed introduction of the carbon price and with a significantly more disciplined performance by Labor, which has at least for now lost its habit of shooting itself in the foot at least once a month.

The prime minister has also benefited from a virtuous circle: the better she has looked in the polls, the more assured her performance has been, and the less impact her critics have had. Kevin Rudd is now a virtual fixture in the media, but no one is talking about him replacing the prime minister. Directly or indirectly critical tomes from Lindsay Tanner and Maxine McKew have come and gone. This week, Gillard moved swiftly to establish the institutional child abuse royal commission, then went to Perth to catch up with Hillary Clinton.

Meantime, Abbott has been enduring another round of bad personal polls and saying bizarre things about one of his own MPs. The contrast between them is being reflected in her growing lead as preferred prime minister.

But Labor is still not back to where it was when our current political cycle began: February 2011, after the government announced its intention to adopt a carbon price. From the 2010 election through until that point, the parties had been locked together in the polls. The carbon price announcement smashed that deadlock, sending Labor, and the prime minister's, polling plummeting. After more than 20 months, only now is Labor limping back to where things were at the start of last year. So Abbott's supposedly poor position has to be seen in context.

But many observers, and a few MPs outside the Rudd camp, thought there was no way the prime minister could recover (nor did I, I readily admit). And yet, Labor suddenly looks competitive again. Moreover, it can reflect on a positive agenda. It has bedded down the carbon price, put in place a punitive solution for asylum seekers (criticism of which is confined to the media and commentariat, and certainly not shared by voters), and signed up for a big picture agenda – education, disability, Asian century – that has coloured in the space where people used to wonder what the government stood for. It has also, finally, drawn a bead on Abbott, successfully identifying him as a man who has a serious problem with women.

The only response from the Coalition and its media cheerleaders has been to complain about unfair personal attacks, smear Gillard and suggest there's a looming budget crisis. Asking questions about the AWU in 1995 and insisting Tony's a lovely chap after all isn't going to get them to August, although it will probably be the only thing we get from The Oz until then.

Abbott can turn his bad numbers around. Gillard turned around even worse numbers. But he has less time to do so. It took around 18 months for the prime minister to reverse the negative tide caused by the carbon price. Abbott has just over nine months until the election, but probably less given we're already drifting into the summer politics-free zone. In any event, he needs to use summer to recalibrate his strategy and give voters some broad impressions of a positive Abbott agenda. That's not to suggest there are timelines or hurdles that he must somehow meet: remember how often pretty much everyone in the press gallery has set Gillard a "crucial test" which she seems to have moved past without too much difficulty.

He might also benefit from some more Labor mistakes – but Labor's initial response to Abbott was to wait for him to stumble, and he never did, at least not in a way that damaged him with voters. The Coalition brains trust should assume Gillard has now hit her stride as PM, and take any Labor stuff-ups as a bonus.

On the other hand, when Abbott is being Abbott, as he was yesterday, and saying ridiculous things that suggested Ken Wyatt somehow isn't the real deal when it comes to Aboriginal politicians – core and non-core Aboriginal MPs, perhaps? – he starts to seem only one major gaffe away from becoming a figure of ridicule whom even News Ltd will start undermining.

At which point, it becomes a question of Joe or Malcolm. Turnbull would deliver victory, most certainly, but like Kevin Rudd the electoral popularity is offset by the long list of casualties and enemies accumulated the first time around as leader. Joe Hockey has performed the thankless task of being shadow Treasurer in a miracle economy with some skill, and turned around perceptions that he is a lightweight. But whether he can deliver victory against Gillard is a mystery. For a party that has, against the advice of its leader, taken victory for granted for so long, the choice may not be a difficult one, however much Turnbull drives colleagues mad.

This article was first published on www.crikey.com.au on November 14. Republished with permission.

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