Who's Afraid Of Abbott, PM?


Last night I ran into a colleague of mine in Melbourne’s newest bar on Brunswick’s Sydney Road. We chatted about a number of things and then he put to me, with a real sense of urgency, the question that was clearly on his mind.

"Tell me," he asked, "do you really think Tony Abbott can be Prime Minister?"

It’s the question being whispered in a thousand coffee shops in inner-city Australia right now as news of the Coalition’s improved polling circulates.

Since taking the reins as opposition leader late last year, Tony Abbott’s direct and combative style appears to have struck a real chord with at least some sections of the electorate — especially the Coalition’s conservative base. And as Abbott has lassoed disengaged voters back to the Coalition’s camp, the polls, which for two years and more have seen Kevin Rudd riding high, have narrowed appreciably.

It’s not just rusted-on Coalition voters in the regions who are warming to Abbott’s style either. In some parts of the country, notably Queensland and New South Wales, Labor strategists are worried that disaffection with long-term state Labor governments is washing through to the federal vote. In Queensland, the issue is the unpopular privatisation of state assets, whereas in New South Wales the general malaise into which the state has sunk under a succession of media-heavy, policy-light Labor premiers is causing concerns.

While dispassionate analysis of the polls shows that the Rudd Government still enjoys a robust lead in two-party preferred terms, there’s no doubt that, on some issues, the Coalition is making Labor uncomfortable. As you’d expect, one of these is climate change but, perhaps more surprisingly, another is the economy. The latest Newspoll, which showed the Coalition leading Labor 45–40 as the best party to manage the economy, has led partisan commentators like The Australian‘s Dennis Shanahan to declare "the trends … are beginning to run against Labor."

It’s easy to poke holes in Shanahan’s analysis. After all, the most obvious trend on show is that Labor has led in two-party-preferred terms in every single poll since the last election. But he does have a point: it must concern Labor that the Coalition enjoys a poll lead at all, even on economic issues.

After all, it was the Rudd Government’s decision to "go hard and go early" with the stimulus package that has helped ensure Australia’s economic downturn was a mild sneeze, compared to the debilitating economic influenza currently being endured in the United States and Europe.

The Coalition opposed the stimulus package at the time and has carped on about the debt and deficit issue ever since.

Indeed, national debt is one of shadow finance minister Barnaby Joyce’s favourite hobby horses. The outback accountant is so concerned about Australia’s relatively small public debt that he recently questioned treasury secretary Ken Henry on the issue at Senate Estimates. Henry comfortably won that exchange.

Undeterred, Joyce then sounded off about debt for most of the episode of Q&A broadcast on Monday night, despite being made to look silly by Lindsay Tanner on more than one occasion.

Being made to look silly has never worried Barnaby Joyce. And why should it? His colourful antics have seen him elevated all the way to a senior leadership position in the Opposition. And Joyce’s posturing on climate change has been wildly successful in certain parts of the electorate, notably with older males in the regions.

The public debt issue can be seen in the same light. For some voters and commentators, government debt is simply a Bad Thing, evidence of governments that can’t add up. As George Megalogenis argued this week, "the idea that the budget should be in deficit for the next four or five years when the economy is at near-full employment, should be laughable."

Megalogenis is normally a highly literate commentator, and so his jeremiad against big government tells us some important things about the political DNA of the right-of-centre of Australian politics. Many Australians simply don’t understand Keynesian economics — despite the fact that the ideas of Keynes, as implemented by Ken Henry, Glenn Stevens and Wayne Swan, have helped save Australia from the trials being endured by economies in the northern hemisphere.

The facts are stark. The reason the Australian economy is at "near-full employment" is because of the combination of very low interest rates and the very large fiscal stimulus package. In both regards, Australia proved to be much bolder than our American and British colleagues. Australian interest rates were much higher than in Britain or the US — so they could drop much lower. And Australia’s budget was also in surplus at the end of the boom, again unlike America’s, so when the time came to borrow to spend to prop up domestic demand, the resulting deficits were comparably far more modest. As a result, Australia has one of the lowest public debts of the rich world.

But these facts are hard to communicate to an electorate that may have already moved on, as focus group researcher Rebecca Huntley told Lateline‘s Ticky Fullerton on Tuesday night. Interest rates are rising again and the Government’s big challenges are now the problems of prosperity, like urban infrastructure and human services.

As Huntley said on Lateline, "Consumers have kind of moved on. When we asked them at the end of last year what were the big issues for them, it was healthcare, it was transport, it was growing cities, it was immigration, it was water, it was renewable energy. They weren’t really talking about the economy."

If we go back to the Newspoll, we can see quantitative evidence that backs this up. "Health and medicare" and "education" were the two biggest issues for voters, followed by "the economy", "water planning" and "welfare and social issues". "Climate change" is well down the list, below the more generic "the environment".

Labor leads on all of these issues except the economy. In fact, if you look at the previous figures on which party would best handle the economy, Labor has been steadily gaining ground on the Coalition since the last election.

In October 2007, the Liberals led this category by a whopping 53–29. In government, Labor has steadily eroded the Coalition’s claim to be the better economic manager. Labor comfortably outpolls the Coalition on health and education — and indeed on climate change. And as for resurrecting Work Choices? Well, industrial relations is still a winner for Labor too.

The picture that emerges from this recent polling tells us a number of things.

Firstly, the Government is not in nearly as much trouble as many believe. It leads in the polls on nearly every issue that matters, including preferred prime minister.

Secondly, the election will be fought on bread-and-butter issues like public hospitals; Kevin Rudd appears certain to take a public hospital takeover to voters as a key campaign pledge.

And finally, while the Coalition’s rhetoric about debts, deficits and "great big new taxes on everything" are resonating with some portions of the electorate, "the trends" are still running with the Government.

Inner-city lefties shouldn’t get too worried about a Tony Abbott government — yet.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.