Here at the Politically Homeless Institute, we've always regarded "Prime Minister Abbott" as a punchline in search of a joke. He's always lived by the idea that he can pull something off at the last minute, and it's always been bullshit. Nonetheless, we have more respect than you might imagine for the contrary view. Let's say there is a switch there, and that Abbott can flick it (unlike John Hewson, who insisted that Keating had a "glass jaw" but could never land the blow that sent him sprawling to the mat).
Abbott has until Easter to prove he's a real potential Prime Minister. If he's not coming across as the mature, thoughtful and stable soul his fans claim him to be, capable of bringing about the mature, thoughtful and stable Australia that has apparently eluded us so far, then he's pretty much finished in '12.
After Easter comes the Budget. The Treasurer will have a lot of money to play with, what with the carbon price mechanism and the mining tax. While (if he's still in the job) Swan will err on the side of caution, the Budget and the reality of the new economic environment brought about by these taxes will shift the whole debate about the Australian economy and what it means to participate in and run it. Journalists will be trapped in their "beer, cigs up" clichés and will miss the sheer breadth and depth of the changes (and what might have been) in a way that their forebears in the 1980s didn't. Economist bloggers will get it and eventually journos will have to follow their lead, grudgingly and without attribution.
True, nobody will, as Shaun Carney helpfully points out, join hands and dance around in a circle when the carbon compensation comes in. Nobody did this when equivalent measures were introduced for the GST in 2000, either. Anyone who expected otherwise might be a valuable inside source for journalists, but they have little else going for them. The fact that the government will have shifted the whole economic debate will be the main issue.
Federal taxes in Australia have fallen heavily upon individuals and companies. A shift of the burden to miners and carbon polluters doesn't mean that we get a free government but it does alter our relationship to government and it to us. Having introduced all those taxes, Labor is in a position to show that they form part of some sort of coherent whole, a way forward. Yes, they'll do it in a cack-handed way and we're all getting used to that - but since when were Australians moved by silver-tongued oratory?
There is no Liberal response to that. The idea that they are going to cut $25b of carbon compensation and $70b or so from the new tax forms - together about a third of the Federal budget - has no credibility at all. It will have less credibility once the status quo shifts to the point where it simply will not do to insist that the new paradigm can be reversed.
The Liberals tried this with Medicare, which was introduced in 1985. They kept insisting that Medicare was a terrible burden on the nation which could be unwound; both notions were rubbish and they lost election after election trying to maintain otherwise. After a decade or so they made their peace with it. Howard gave the impression that he'd learned some lessons along the way rather than just waiting for his turn. When that happened voters started taking them seriously as a government.
Try Tony Abbott on what he's learned in opposition: nothing. He and his think the election of 2007, never mind 2010, was lost on technicalities and bullshit.
You could argue that the European meltdown might hit Australia, and that if/when that happens people will abandon what little support they have for the incumbents and flock to the Coalition. Again, this is bullshit. The Coalition have almost forfeited the once impregnable perception that they were sound economic managers. That perception is central to Liberal self-identity: an economically illiterate Liberal Party is a house that cannot stand, a sign that self-doubt has become panic, as John Howard learned when he saw his party riven by self-doubt on this very front during the 1980s and '90s.
Tony Abbott, stunt man and wrecker, is an economic illiterate: yes, he is. Nobody turns to an economic illiterate when there's economic trouble: that's when people end their dalliance with the alternative and go for The Devil You Know. Carping that the government has stuffed up didn't work for his brother-from-another-mother Latham, it didn't work for Beazley or Hewson or Peacock or Hayden or Snedden - especially when he has (like they had) no answers other than cuts. Nobody who isn't already rusted-on Liberal will want such a person to run anything. To believe that people will eventually love the carbon tax is no less silly than the idea that wacky, say-anything Tony Abbott is the man to lend gravitas and an even temperament to issues that are obviously too complex for him.
John Roskam's article in Friday's AFR about democracy was deeply silly. There is no future for the Liberal Party in mocking business, and people like Hockey and Bishop (J, not B) know it. Gillard and Rudd were getting similar messages about their party led by Latham in 2004, and like them back then, there's bugger-all they can or will do about it until time boxes them into a corner in the Death Zone (see below).
By Easter it will be clear that none of the independents will come across. If Abbott is to "flick the switch" to being the post-reno occupant of The Lodge, it is the six independent MHRs who will have to bear witness to it. If they all continue to think he's a dickhead, and they work with him, Abbott has no chance of convincing the rest of us that he's much chop.
After mid-year come the adjustment stories: and not just those in the media, or even online, but in people's lived experiences. Sure, there'll be stories about people genuinely disadvantaged by the new regime, and there'll be as much sympathy for that as there is for any other form of entrenched disadvantage really. Mostly, there will be a lot of grinning and bearing it through the adjustments and ingenuity in cutting emissions. Again, nobody is fooled by images of happy workers eating crap and loving it, but when everyone is getting on with it and making do, people will switch off endless carping; nobody will believe it can all be wished away. Rollback is rubbish.
Soon after that comes the vortex of September through which no politics permeates. Politicians would have to get shot to be noticed. Jeff Kennett thought he was terribly clever going to the polls just
The Death Zone culminates in the December of the year before the election is due. In the last four Parliaments, the Opposition Party has dumped their leader in the Death Zone. I reckon the Libs will dump Abbott because he won't magically convince any constituency that he's PM material while he will disappoint swathes of those who are today of that opinion. That said, even those with the most roseate view of Abbott would agree that the Death Zone is too late to persuade people if there's any doubt about your standing.
Abbott hasn't got a year to go before hitting the Death Zone, and it's less true to say that he's got months. To hit the pre-Budget period in Easter with any momentum he has to start turfing events organisers and press release wranglers now, and get on board the kind of serious staff that Howard assembled in 1995. This is not to say that shunting Arthur Sinodinos into the Senate is going to work for anyone. However much Howard indulged Abbott, Sinodinos spent a decade hosing down Abbott's ill-considered musings, ditherings and clangers on economics. He might have done so deftly enough, to the point where he and Abbott are clearly on better than speaking terms. The fact is that Sinodinos will spend the next year or so covering his eyes at Abbott's beef-witted forays into serious, nation-defining economic policy, like the Julie Andrews character in The Princess
Abbott, as I've said elsewhere, needs a serious staff and he needs it now. Trouble is, no such staff is available to Abbott. For any Liberal to swap state government (or the prospect thereof in Queensland) for a stint with Abbott would reflect political acumen so callow they could not possibly contribute anything toward the Coalition cause. He has to get rid of the stunt organisers and soundbitesmiths now, they've done their job; the next phase requires different skills. Like Richard III screaming for a horse, like that moment in Power Without Glory where John Wren realises he's surrounded by dills, Abbott faces the prospect of entering the Death Zone surrounded by grinning loyalists waiting by eerily quiet phones: the equivalent symptom in politics to the tide rushing out preceding a tsunami.
Now is the time for Abbott to drop the stunts: they've worked about as well as they are going to: polling numbers don't get any better than they are now, and as I've said Abbott himself is a prophylactic on the chances of a Coalition government. He'll also have to reconfigure his staff. That said, I say he will stick with the stunts as they've worked so far (if it ain't broke, remember). His fans will (increasingly stridently, but hoping to hide a growing sense of dread that they might be ignored) start urging Abbott to flick that switch to PM-material: Dennis Shanahan will be convinced that it's already happened, and will try to convince his readers likewise.
The last-minute thing didn't work in 2010 and it won't work next time either, people are awake to Abbott now. Politics is a messy business and the ducks never line up perfectly, especially for someone with attention-deficit issues. The idea that it is all moving to plan will not hold when the ground shifts underneath him, and will be trashed when the business community decides that it doesn't really want to go back to 2006 anyway. Abbott fans need to give their boy a nudge. He had his chance to protect us from the carbon thing, too late now. You can't expect him to be taken on trust any more.