While someone as fit as you would usually have a slow heart rate, I expect your heart quickened when you read this week’s Newspoll, showing as it did a narrowing of Labor’s two party preferred lead since you took over, down to 52/48, but perhaps it skipped a beat when you saw that Kevin Rudd’s lead as preferred prime minister stubbornly remained at 32 percentage points.
The fact that the Morgan face-to-face poll published last week carried the heading ALP strengthens lead after Summer holidays and showed a TPP of 58.5/41.5%, an improvement for Labor, and Essential Research Report the day before Newspoll showed a 56/44 TPP, the same as the two previous weeks, seemed not to dampen enthusiasm for this Newspoll result. Newspoll seems to be the ‘preferred poll’ of the pundits, particularly at The Australian, which understands it so well ‘because it owns it’. The fact that in early November there was another Newspoll 52/48 that bounced to 56/44 two weeks later and was therefore considered ‘an outlier’, has not deterred supportive journos from making a mountain out of the latest poll, not contemplating for a moment that this poll too might be an outlier. You probably saw its preliminary findings the night before. Have you noticed that if The Oz has results favourable to the Coalition coming up, there’s plenty of advance notice on its website – otherwise we have to wait patiently.
You may have derived some cheer from today’s Morgan face-to-face taken over the last two weekends of January that shows Labour down and the Coalition up, back to where they were at the year’s beginning, but your excitement may have been tempered somewhat by a TPP of 56.5/43.5, around Possum Pollytics all pollster trend for the last couple of years, quite different from Newspoll’s 52/48.
So enjoy – this is likely as good as it gets.
If the Newspoll was a true reflection of what the public thinks of your ascent to leadership we need to ask how this is so.
Over Christmas you had plenty of free air; Kevin and Julia and most ministers were having ‘a well-earned break’, something for which we should be grateful with a frantic year ahead. You even got a spread in Australian Women’s Weekly that ‘humanized’ you as a family man ready to give advice on moral as well as social and political issues. Perhaps it was this uncontested exposure that seemingly enhanced your connection to the people. Perhaps it was your policy pronouncements that attracted attention. There weren’t all that many and they were mainly contrary, but maybe they helped. Your promise to solve the problem of global warming, or should it be ‘alleged warming’, with a tax-free easy-to-understand scheme in which everyone is a winner, so attractive to those who wish climate change would go away, might have been a factor. Or maybe it was just the force of your personality. A recent Finnish study has shown that whether the elector liked or disliked a politician was more influential in deciding how to vote than was their policies. Democracy is a wonderful beast. Why bother with well thought-through policy if personality is the magic tool?
So the end-of-year break was a welcome opportunity for you to get started, free of a contest. Now that the political year has begun, welcome to the real world of politics as leader, something no doubt you’ve already discovered is quite different from being a shadow minister or even a minister.
Some journalists regard you as a fight-hardened and very smart political operative, not to be underestimated. They say that would be a big mistake. They portray you as someone who will ‘take the fight up to the Government’, a portrayal which your pugilistic nature would endorse.
As we look for evidence of this smartness we wonder why you appointed Barnaby Joyce as Shadow Finance Minister. You regard him as Australia’s best ‘retail politician’, whatever that means. If you mean he has a smart turn of phrase, you’re probably right, but his preoccupation with clever one-liners is detracting from his real job, in which his accountancy skills are a poor substitute for an understanding of national finances. Barrie Cassidy pointed out that he is behaving like a court jester. Yet he is in politics, not vaudeville. His performance at the Press Club this week was not a great start, and his foot-in-mouth media appearances have engendered confusion instead of confidence. Was it smart to put him up against one of the Government’s best performers, Lindsay Tanner, who already is running rings around him? Maybe he’ll improve; maybe he’ll learn his job; but he may turn out to be an albatross around your neck. Already you have had to hose down comments from him that the Coalition may cut public service jobs and the foreign aid program to fund its carbon mitigation scheme.
Was it smart to bring back on the front bench old-timers from the Howard era? That suggests a return to that era, so convincingly rejected by the people a couple of years ago.
After rejecting the Government’s CPRS after initially advocating that the Coalition pass it, you promised all the details of a plan of your own that would not be ‘a great big new tax’, but would solve the climate change problem with almost no pain to anyone. Was that smart? This week you delivered, but details were missing. You promised all would be revealed, but when your announcement was made, funding arrangements were missing, details which you now say will be revealed ‘well before the election’. By now your plan has been dissected and found wanting by Government, which insists it will increase not decrease emissions, will cost more, will provide no compensation for families, and does not reveal funding sources. Columnists are saying likewise. Was it smart to promise a detailed carbon mitigation plan when only a few weeks over the end-of-year break were available to do what Ross Garnaut and the Government took over two years to accomplish? Have you discovered what you accuse the Government of so often, that talk is easy, but action takes time and effort? Have you noticed that the mantra ‘great big new tax’ which you believed was such a PR winner is being countered by the Government’s description of your plan – ‘a climate con-job’? I wonder which one will stick harder?
Perhaps though you felt you were smart enough to front up with a partly developed policy without costings and lacking any information about where the bucket of money to encourage polluters to pollute less would come from. Did you expect the public to accept your thesis that the greed and the social conscience of the polluters would bring them into line and persuade them to pollute less? Perhaps you felt ‘business as usual’ for the polluters would appeal to them, but did you believe the public would swallow it?
Perhaps you felt you were smart enough to convince the people, struggling with the complexities of the Government’s CPRS, to warmly embrace a simple plan, especially if it caused almost no pain, no matter if it was ineffective. Did you believe the people would pick simplicity over efficacy? Comments by some journalists on air suggest that might be so. But that belies the inherent commonsense of the Australian public – they know a con when they see one. Lenore Taylor nails it in The Oz when she says in Initiative is about votes, not carbon: “This is a climate change plan to get Tony Abbott through to the next election, not a serious plan to refit the Australian economy so that it emits less carbon.”
Perhaps you hoped for some supportive comments from the media. You were not disappointed. Predictably, The Australian obliged with banner headlines Abbott’s cut-through climate plan. In contemporary politics, ‘cutting through’ seems to be the most salient operative endeavour. I suppose that means being understood by the people. The author of the article, Matthew Franklin, went on to support you with “...most business groups have backed the plan, agreeing with the Opposition Leader’s assertion that it is ‘cheaper, simpler, and more cost effective’ than Labor’s proposed carbon emissions trading scheme.” You know you can always rely on The Oz. Of course, as Franklin knows and acknowledges in another article, most business groups have not backed the plan; even some of those that have expressed interest, such as the National Farmers Federation and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, want more details before committing themselves, as does the Business Council of Australia. He should be more careful and consistent with his assertions.
Looking back to last year, for better or worse, you jumped into the ring, a place you’ve always coveted, or more correctly you were pushed into the ring by your seconds (good old Nick and Eric), and having recovered from the surprise of being chosen as the contestant to take on the champ, you’ve been throwing punches wildly, just like you always have. You may feel you’re ahead on points so far, but time will tell how many rounds you survive. When you have to move beyond domestic boxing to international bouts you may find that tricky, especially after Barnaby’s comments about cutting foreign aid. How do you propose to convince the public you can handle international bouts and perform competently on the world stage?
The life of a leader is not easy – ask Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull. You and your Coalition colleagues seem to feel though that so far the bout is going well, that Newspoll and the bevy of sycophantic journalists are right. But if the first few days of real bare-knuckle politics are a guide, critics might conclude that unless you can lift your performance substantially, unless you can, Johnny Howard style, pull a few live rabbits out of the hat, you should enjoy this week’s Newspoll - you will likely find that right now is as good as it gets.
What do you think?