When Tony Abbott became leader of the Liberal Party by just one vote in December 2009 he saved the Liberal Party and non-Labor cause nationally from annihilation.
Kevin Rudd as prime minister was riding high in the polls and the Opposition under their second leader in two years, Malcolm Turnbull, was suffering from policy “me-tooism” given his support for the government’s emission trading scheme (ETS).
Turnbull broke the basic rule of opposition – never agree with the government unless it is clear that their policy is demonstrably right in all respects and that there is no acceptable alternative.
Abbott understood that the role of an opposition is to oppose, to question and to criticise government and to highlight mistakes and misjudgements. Politics and government in our adversarial system are not about holding hands in agreement like at some university seminar.
Being critical and, as some complain, being negative, is a necessary part of the job description of an Opposition leader and the prime role of any Opposition.
Abbott understood these roles. And at the 2010 election he almost pulled off a stunning victory, coming within a whisker of The Lodge.
Meanwhile the Gillard Government, although negotiating itself into office with the Greens and some independents, has lurched from policy debacle to policy debacle: from promising not to have a carbon tax to introducing one; to declarations of support for a budget surplus to admittances it cannot be achieved; to a draft education bill that is hollow and vacuous; to rushed media legislation now dropped; and to other “reforms” whose long terms costs have yet to be budgeted.
Also, the continuing presence of former prime minister Kevin Rudd in the government, first as foreign affairs minister, then in February last year as a contender for leadership, has destabilised and distracted the Gillard Government, making it appear, as we saw this week, disunited and thus doomed to lose the forthcoming election.
In such circumstances what should the Abbott-led opposition do? It has been criticised for being too negative.
Tactically the answer is to sit tight, keep a low profile and let the government fall over.
But that is not good enough, given the polls and that in our system the Opposition is in reality the alternative government in waiting. We need to know how an Abbott Government will handle the challenges facing Australia and indeed what it sees those challenges as being.
Abbott may have saved the Liberal Party, but now he has to come clean with the electorate about not only what his government will do for Australia, but also articulating what a government cannot and should not do.
This is a difficult task because oppositions cannot be expected to develop policies with the same detail as a government. Oppositions lack the resources of government. More than that, policy not just about tackling problems, but is itself part of the politics, one of the weapons and props used to differentiate your party from opponents, to respond to competition, to stake out policy ground, and of course, to win votes.
So to reveal too much policy detail, too early could be tactically inept, allowing an incumbent government to respond too easily, to steal the ideas and to criticise proposals thus neutralising the opposition’s political appeal.
What we should expect from an opposition is a clear articulation of the key policy areas deemed important, an outline of the principles that will drive their policy actions and some desired outcomes. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Though the yapping dogs of the Opposition still bark too stridently, the just released, Our Plan: Real Solutions for all Australians although dismissed by one long time commentator as lightweight without costings, is probably the best you can expect from an Opposition. At 50 pages long it can hardly be described as trite. It outlines priorities, principles and specific proposals. Compared to some of the policy documents (or non-policy documents) released by the current government recently, it is performs favourably.
Certainly, Abbott and the opposition must continue to be a critic of the government, but in the current circumstances and so close to an election it needs to get away from the vitriol of politics and focus on the issues that should drive the national agenda.