Tony Abbott issued one of the most remarkable, perhaps even shocking, statements of his time as Opposition Leader yesterday.
TONY Abbott issued one of the most remarkable, perhaps even shocking, statements of his time as Opposition Leader yesterday. Given that Abbott advised the public in early 2010 to treat his written pronouncements more seriously than his off-the-cuff responses in interviews, this was particularly noteworthy because it arrived in the form of a press release.
In the statement, the Opposition Leader offered unstinting praise for a decision by the Gillard government.
That is not a misprint. Abbott was effusive in his endorsement of the appointment of Jim Spigelman, a former New South Wales chief justice appointed by the Carr Labor government and one-time adviser to Gough Whitlam, as the new chairman of the ABC.
''Justice Spigelman has demonstrated an ongoing interest in and commitment to the visual arts since the 1970s when he was appointed by prime minister Whitlam as secretary of the Department of the Media and in his subsequent activities with many of the nation's premier cultural institutions,'' Abbott said in his statement.
''He has more than demonstrated the respect for truth and the passion for fairness in reporting, as well as in society, that this position demands. This is an appointment that will be welcomed by all Australians.''
That is high praise in anyone's book. Abbott's comments were similar to those by the opposition's communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday. But Turnbull's enthusiasm for Spigelman was not so surprising the former Liberal leader approaches politics differently to his successor.
Abbott's praise for the Gillard government's Spigelman appointment was shocking because it did not conform to the way he has conducted himself almost without pause since taking over as Liberal leader in December 2009 - negative, confrontational, alarmist, unyielding and simplistic. Yesterday's statement was the exception that proved the rule.
And what an astonishing success Abbott has been.
He is not the most successful opposition leader in the postwar era. Not yet, anyway. For the moment, that title goes to Whitlam, who took over the Labor leadership after a landslide defeat, almost secured a win at his first election as leader
and sealed the deal at the second.
The signs are, of course, that Abbott is on track to repeat, at next year's election, Whitlam's successful two-stage path to victory. For well over a year, Abbott's had the ALP well and truly on the run.
In an important sign of federal Labor's parlous outlook, the union movement this week made preparations for a change of government in 2013 by removing the ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence and installing in his place the head of the manufacturing workers' union, Dave Oliver.
The heads of the nation's biggest unions concluded several weeks ago that the low-key Lawrence was no longer viable, either as an advocate who could extract some extra concessions from the government in the lead-up to the next election or as a last-ditch defender of unionism in the event of an Abbott government.
Given the crucial role the unions played in Labor's rise to power in 2007, implementing one of the most effective single-issue third-party political campaigns Australia has seen, this was a significant move by the ACTU. While it's not quite manning the lifeboats, it is making sure it knows where all the safety gear is stowed.
Initially, the intention will be to give the government a better chance of hanging on by re-energising the union movement's capacity to campaign on behalf of the Labor Party. That's the idea, anyway. But ultimately, it's all an inadvertent nod to Abbott's political effectiveness.
The Liberals have left their post-WorkChoices industrial relations policy in a sort of limbo.
Between the 2007 defeat and the 2010 election, the Coalition steadfastly refused to revisit its workplace policy and this resulted in Abbott finding himself scribbling a pledge not to reinstate the policy on a piece of paper during a radio interview early in the 2010 election campaign.
Since then, the policy has continued to be in lockdown. Still the government asserts that as sure as night follows day a Coalition government would reintroduce WorkChoices or a reasonable facsimile. But the refrain appears to have lost a good deal of its political impact.
Few politicians have come to the leadership of a major party with as many negative notices as Abbott. After a razor-thin victory over Turnbull in late 2009, presiding over a party room that was split virtually 50-50 on an emissions trading scheme, his prospects looked patchy. Only two years after his candidacy for the Liberal leadership in the wake of the 2007 defeat was dismissed as folly, he was viewed by many as an accidental leader, more cannon fodder for a popular government led by Kevin Rudd.
Labor began by underestimating Abbott and his party. It underestimated him as a leader and as a communicator, and it overestimated the public's sense of attachment to the government and its agenda.
The ALP also misunderstood Abbott's determination and the depth of the desire of Liberal MPs to return to office. Under Abbott, differences over policy and personal ambition have largely been set aside in order to provide a united front. In many important respects, it is not just for appearances. What unites Liberals is their drive to kill off the government.
There are few lengths to which the Coalition will not go, as evidenced by the accumulated lucky dip of policies to which Abbott has already committed himself. The carbon tax would be removed but tax cuts would stay. The resource rent tax would go, too.
Essentially, Abbott is promising massive spending cuts plus massive expenditure, at the same time.
Yesterday, he promised to establish a commission of audit if he wins office. This has the potential to act as a repository for every conflicting, contradictory promise the Coalition makes between now and the election, a sort of bottomless container that will supposedly act as a clearing house on the other side of polling day.
The opinion polls tell us that, like Gillard, Abbott is not personally popular with most voters. This is the one aspect of the polls to which Labor strategists cling when they are looking to be optimistic, the idea being that if they can get the focus on to Abbott, Labor's stocks could rise.
This was articulated by the government's glamour recruit Bob Carr this week, who said Labor can win if it makes the election a referendum on Abbott.
True, but how can the government stop the election being a referendum on Gillard? And how strong is voters' desire to simply be rid of the government regardless of how they feel about Abbott? The polls suggest that at this point of the electoral cycle it's pretty strong.
Having originally been dismissive of Abbott, the government is now obsessed with him. Every minister from Gillard down frames the political contest as being between the government and Abbott. Almost without exception, they define their mission as stopping Abbott from taking over the country.
A barely disguised sense of defeatism lies beneath that message. The government's everyday message is not about its comprehensive vision for the nation or the high value of its ideas over the Coalition's, it is about what a dangerous fellow Abbott is. There are few signs that it is working.
Shaun Carney is an associate editor.