Is Abbott Really Catching Up?


For weeks now, the big political story spun by much of our national media has been fiction. Which story? I’m talking about the "polls are narrowing, watch out Labor" story, in which a Tony Abbott-led Opposition is supposedly pegging back Labor’s lead in the opinion polls.

Just this week, for instance, the latest Newspoll was released. It showed Labor and the Coalition on 52–48 in two-party preferred terms — roughly where they’ve been for the last three months, in other words. But newspaper commentators and the wire services instead jumped on the fact that Kevin Rudd’s approval rating had dropped below 50 per cent for the first time since he took office.

The Newspoll figures allowed some in the media to argue that Kevin Rudd’s "honeymoon is over", opening the door ever so slightly for leadership speculation about Julia Gillard. Damien Murphy in The Age even suggested that, with the Prime Minister apparently being booed by Queensland rugby league fans at Lang Park on the weekend, "it was the jeer heard, if not around the nation, then at least down the entire east coast."

There’s no doubt that Rudd’s Newspoll approval ratings are on a slow slide, albeit from the stratospheric heights after the 2007 election. Labor’s massive lead since mid-2008 has narrowed too but the reality remains that Kevin Rudd is still a popular Prime Minister, and Labor still leads comfortably in the polls.

Unfortunately, "Labor still leads in polls" is a much less interesting media angle than "Rudd on the nose". Contrast the avalanche in coverage for this week’s Newspoll with the muted response to Monday’s Essential Research poll which found Labor cruising on 56–44.

The Essential survey polled more respondents and had a lower margin of error than Newspoll, making it a more reliable gauge of current voting intentions. But the Essential poll didn’t fit the current media narrative that Kevin Rudd is losing his shine, so most outlets ignored it.

This is all the more curious when you consider some of the additional questions asked by Essential Research.

One of them concerned the competing parental leave policies proposed by the Government and the Coalition. This is what was put to the respondents: "The Opposition leader Tony Abbott has proposed a scheme to give new parents 26 weeks leave at their normal rate of pay to be paid for by a 1.7 per cent levy on large companies. The Rudd Government plans to introduce a scheme to give new parents 18 weeks leave at the minimum wage rate paid for by the Government. Which scheme do you support more?"

Those polled plumped for the government scheme, 40–24, with 27 per cent favouring "neither". Interestingly, only 37 per cent of Coalition voters supported Abbott’s more generous scheme, suggesting that the policy has some opponents within the conservative base.

We now know there is at least one prominent conservative who opposes Abbott’s scheme: Peter Costello. The former treasurer used his regular Fairfax column to mount a stinging attack on both parental leave schemes, saving his most colourful invective for his former colleague. Abbott’s policy was a "Crocodile Dundee approach", he wrote, arguing that by attempting to outflank Labor on the left, Abbott was abandoning the core Liberal philosophy of lower taxes. Labor certainly enjoyed the intervention, making hay in Parliament at Tony Abbott’s expense.

With an election year now in full swing, Labor has taken the gloves off.

One measure of how seriously Labor’s key strategists are taking Abbott’s challenge is that the party is already running TV advertisements attacking Abbott’s record as health minister, claiming he "ripped $1 billion dollars" out of public hospital funding. It’s a claim with some validity: while federal hospitals funding increased in nominal terms during the Howard government, it fell as a percentage of the total pie. But ordinary voters won’t look up the Budget Papers: they’ll simply follow their instincts, and the polls tell us that voters strongly favour Labor on the issue of health.

For their part, Coalition parliamentarians took the opportunity to vent their frustration on their former colleague Costello. "Buzz off, Pete," the always quotable Wilson Tuckey told Michelle Grattan. "When you leave this place, it’s not a bad idea that you keep your trap shut." Barnaby Joyce suggested that Costello was merely enjoying "the cathartic experience of exploding", an experience Joyce himself appears to find irresistible.

Costello’s attack has blunted Abbott’s forward momentum in a week when he needed to exert some traction.

Indeed, as the perceptive Mark Bahnisch has been arguing, Abbott’s general strategy of trying to seize the media spotlight has its own risks. "Despite the fact that Abbott’s been having a dream run in the media (always seemingly ready to be amused and entertained with something or someone that can be represented as providing colour and movement)," Bahnisch wrote recently, "it’s actually much more difficult (and probably more unwise) to run the ‘seize the attention’ opposition strategy than sometimes perceived. It has a pretty short use by date. And it doesn’t necessarily work; just ask Mark Latham."

Indeed, Labor have been attempting to paint Abbott as the new Latham for some time now, without too much success. And therein lies the problem for the new Opposition Leader. His success thus far owes much to the consolidation of the conservative base. But rusted-on Coalition voters are not going to win him the election; to do that, he needs to convince swinging voters in marginal seats. This was probably the thinking behind the ambitious parental leave announcement, but by trying to play on Labor’s home ground, Abbott leaves himself open to attacks from both the left and the right.

It would help if the Coalition had spent the last two years developing viable new policies but they haven’t. So Abbott is almost required to make policy on the run in the run-up to the election. This leaves Labor all sorts of opportunities for counter-attack. It’s going to be crash through or crash — and one suspects Abbott wouldn’t want it any other way.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.