Apparently, there'd be no mining tax*, and there might be a bit more money for people who take parental leave*. Most people don't pay the former or enjoy the latter. Most people do pay electricity bills, and Abbott has offered no reason to think that electricity prices would go down. He can parrot all that focus-group stuff about rising prices; he knows there's nothing he can do to actually reduce those prices, and to his credit he hasn't committed to any policy that would do so.
At this point committed Liberals rhapsodise about how successful he is at getting his message across, that the few policy positions he has are so well and widely known. People who are most keen on this tend to be people who have little understanding of political history. Most failed Opposition Leaders have one or two well-known positions:
- From John Howard's first term as Opposition Leader in the 1980s, a male hand squeezing blood from a stone;
- Kim Beazley's GST rollback; and who could forget
- Mark Latham's slogan "ease the squeeze", catchy but so what?
In the past two years of the Gillard government - yes, it has been that long - there is no example where the Opposition has forced a reassessment of and improvement to policy by its drawing attention to it. Abbott told Alan Jones that he was holding the government to account. Nobody would expect Jones to embarrass Abbott by asking him for an example of where he's actually improved the way taxpayers' money is spent - but nobody would expect any self-consciously "professional journalist" to do so either (and if any did, Abbott would avoid being interviewed by them). There is, in short, no reason why the country should look to Abbott as a better leader to Prime Minister Gillard, and nor will it do so.
Much is made of Abbott's Rhodes-scholar intellect, and his fans claim he's a tolerant person against all the evidence - but he is not a leader who can cope with "split advice", either.
Any other promises (actually, I'd include paid parental leave in this) is negated by the commitment to cut in service of a budget surplus. That confusion over priorities is a failure of communication. If there is no message to get across it is nebulous to talk about "getting your message across" or "dominating the media space" at a time when the space has largely been abandoned as a forum for public debate on real issues.
Let's conflate the issue of the carbon price, the Coalition's need to combat the historically high vote for the Greens, and the negotiations over the Murray-Darling basin into a single overarching narrative of "the environment". Let's look at the Coalition's message on "the environment", which is no better or worse than its narrative on "the economy" or "working families" or whatever.
If he's going to establish a clear position against the carbon tax, Abbott needs to do one of two things:
- Declare the carbon-climate link is "absolute crap" and run on that basis, from a position of conviction and the kind of clear distinction from Labor that conservatives hanker for constantly. In fact, it is a symptom of weakness by the party's membership and the adroitness by which they can be manipulated by party officials that grassroots Liberals do not push for outright denialism as Coalition policy. It would succeed if a vote were held, but not such vote would be held; or
- Acknowledge that the carbon-climate link is a problem to be managed, explain how he'd manage it better than the incumbents, stop letting Monckton and Reinhart define his message for him, and lift the debate.
Any fool can get their picture taken in a picturesque place, but this does not equate to a demonstrable program rooted in a real commitment. People will forgive dropping this element of a promise or postponing that, but where there is no commitment the PR/media overestimate their own abilities by substituting it for fluff.
The whole idea of a policy that's more expensive than the government's (i.e. the Coalition's current policy) is stupid. Greg Hunt should realise that he will have more credibility if he resigns. He is working within the parameters set by his leader, and he should be bigger than that. He should have more faith in himself and his party's future than to be stuck advancing the absurd. Messaging professionals should recognise that either Hunt needs more scope to work with, or the selling of such a policy is best done by somebody other than Hunt.
The one environmental issue where the Coalition has a clear narrative is the campaign for commercial fisheries against a proposed network of marine reserves, which is more a pro-fishing than an anti-environmental policy necessarily, but still germane to the Coalition's whole "environment" narrative. The Coalition has a Shadow Minister for Fisheries; it's John Cobb, who holds a landlocked seat in NSW. Cobb failed as a shadow minister with the issue of New Zealand apples, and he was absent from the debate over live cattle exports to Indonesia. Whenever the Coalition talk about agriculture and food security, Barnaby Joyce or Bill Heffernan or even Andrew Robb talk over Cobb.
In any real analysis of politics Abbott should be asked why he hasn't replaced Cobb, and who it is that speaks for the Coalition on core national issues related to land, water and food.
The designated leader of the Coalition attack on the marine reserves proposal is Senator Ron Boswell, a backroom fixer with no grasp of environmental detail and scant respect for science or urban electorates. Boswell wins no votes for the Coalition on any issue anywhere south of Noosa. He appeared on television florid-faced, belligerent and arrogant, saying no and offering nothing, like the worst stereotypes of the Coalition. Making Boswell the Coalition's point-man on this issue was a tacit acceptance that they have given up on it, a momentum-killing tactic if ever there was one.
Joe Hockey admitted last week that he has no grounds to criticise the government other than wistfulness; he wishes Swan were scarier than he is and that he got the credit for Swan's work. The only way Hockey's comments make sense is if he's aditting that he's scared of Swan, underestimated by the Coalition as some latter-day Frank Crean. It was sloppy messaging to put Hockey in front of the media when he had nothing to tell them.
If Hockey repeats such poor performances and errors of judgment he'll be a latter-day Peter Shack: accepting that he has no alternative to offer and slipping into obscurity as a could-have-been. Hockey, like Hunt, should be bigger and smarter than Abbott and his handlers would allow. Hockey has to show that he's not a threat to Abbott; but if you make yourself too small a target you can't ramp it up when you need to, as Costello discovered.
Tony Abbott isn't unpopular because he is the bearer of bad tidings. Tony Abbott is unpopular because he has failed to convince people what he and the Coalition would do differently to Gillard. The only member of the Coalition who seems to believe that sound media depends on sound policy is Andrew Robb, and he's not a good advertisement for either. The idea that you can have a smart media strategy instead of sound policy is foundering now that people are looking to Abbott for post-Gillard leadership, and finding him wanting. There is a real question to be asked as to whether Abbott will be tapped on the shoulder, and whether he will give up if asked. He is a prophylactic on the prospects of a Coalition government.
Yet, the reality is that he is the last real prospect for a Howard Restoration: to give up on Abbott is to give up the long-standing Liberal fantasy that the Howard Government was as good as a government gets, that it lost because of trickery, and that the good economic times of 2003-07 can be restored simply by voting Coalition as soon as possible. That's why the Coalition stick by him and forgive him, they are hard-wired to compensate for and explain away his shortcomings because hey have been doing it for years.
Punting Abbott and taking a chance with someone else would mean rethinking the way the Coalition would govern this country, and even their conception of the country itself. It would mean squabbles over policy - squabbles that can currently be resolved within the party by simply turning the clock back to 2005, a time when all Liberals agree everything was just fine. It's easier for party powerbrokers to punt the leader than examine their own role in positioning the Coalition to govern a country that they don't really understand.
Abbott's pig-headedness means that he would not give up his position lightly, but he is not immovable in the way that Howard was because Abbott cannot command the factions as Howard did (even after being "leader" all this time). Next year he'll be 56 - what else would he do with his life, wear white-flannel trousers and walk along Queenscliff Beach? He's got no head for business or charity, and his kids are adults. If the Coalition were led by someone else Abbott might become a Cabinet Minister but he's been there and done that, and the next Liberal Prime Minister would not indulge him like Howard did. Yet, if Gillard continues her slow and steady ascendancy over him Abbott will become a national laughing stock, and he won't stick around for that. Those profile-writers who love boxing metaphors can talk about him diving in the eighth round.
Abbott is all tactics, no strategy, and the tactics are failing: the suspension of standing orders, a potent political weapon used to great effect by Curtin, Menzies and Whitlam, gives rise to sniggers under Abbott. The cudgel language that the government is "hopeless", "a disaster", etc., has lost its cut-through (when commentators applaud Abbott for a quality he no longer possesses, their own judgment is in doubt, which means a loss of revenue and ooh let's convene a talk on digimedia).
Julia Gillard will lead Labor to victory at the next Federal election. The government has a message and she is starting to give her voice to it. People are wary, holding off for some consistency that will lead to a bigger picture, a picture in which their own role becomes clearer. Messaging professionals who turn away from Labor's recently poor record and who admire Abbott's "cut through" are themselves missing the point, and failing in their own role as communicators.
* This is crap. Abbott hasn't thought this through, he couldn't get it past a hostile Senate, and there would have to be about four elections over the next six years in order to get all the ducks in a row for Abbott, as outlined here - during which time voters would have to maintain both a burning hatred for Labor and absolute forgiveness to the Coalition for breaking any promises. Good luck with that.