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Abbott comes out swinging but is light on detail

Personal credibility is what convinces voters. AAP/Alan Porritt

As a boxer Tony Abbott had a limited but effective method described by some as “the whirling dervish”. He was full of energy and on the attack with arms swinging. It was a tactic that could work for the short term rather than a strategy for the long term, but it was his strong suit that worked for his career in the ring. It could force an opponent to fight on his terms if they were not careful to aim for wearing him down over the long term.

This vignette of Abbott’s life is a good analogy for Abbott’s success and Labor’s failure over the last 18 months to dominate politics by setting the agenda of discussion for the media and populace.

Usually governing parties dominate and opposition parties have a hard time being heard until the accumulation of damage to the government over time starts to tip the seesaw the other way.

But this usual scenario vanished. Ever since Rudd walked away from the emission trading scheme Labor have been spooked and completely risk-averse. Ever since then Labor has been reacting to Abbott rather than setting their strategy.

Only a few days ago Gillard admitted to caucus that Abbott had narrowed the political agenda to asylum seekers and the carbon tax. But this predicament is her failure of leadership over the last year. Even her budget policies were fiscal rectitude and welfare to work measures which are areas where the Coalition has a strong reputation.

Striking back at Labor

Labor relied too much before and still a little bit now on reviling Abbott as the “Mad Monk” extremist to turn off voters. His prodigious efforts last year meant he is out of that box and won’t go back in.

Certainly, there are limits to his appeal, which is why he didn’t get over the line last August and why he still rates below Gillard in the preferred prime minister stakes.

However, he did far better than even his own party imagined at the beginning and the Coalition now leads the two party preferred vote.

The lesson that the Coalition took from the last 18 months was that old fashioned fierce party politics works. He promised that oppositions are there to oppose and he clawed back a Labor lead that most assume was relatively safe for one term – when he wasn’t helped by their Labor’s frequent searches for more of its own feet to shoot. He was taking those tainted tootsies and shoving them in the voters’ faces.

The budget response

So why should Tony Abbott change tactics now? I don’t know why some commentators expected him to announce policies last night in his budget reply. But oppositions shouldn’t this far out from the next projected election (in 2013), especially when the competence of the government is under such scrutiny. So we heard a familiar but effective refrain last night, but with a slight difference.

He borrowed something old and something blue for his speech. He borrowed from the John Howard tactic of 1995 that the opposition leader speak of values which carve an image in the public mind rather than specific policies which will alienate losers and take critical media attention of the government.

Like John Hewson, John Howard and other Liberal leaders before him, Abbott borrowed “forgotten families” from the 1942 speech “forgotten people” by the patron saint of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies, when he was opposition leader.

As all incarnations of Liberal leader claim, Abbott said they are the “backbone of our society” and he went on to name small business, police, nurses, fire fighters, teachers, other professionals and “workers in our steel mills and mines.”

He was more specific about the “forgotten people” than Menzies was, in particular choosing public sector workers. He wishes to attack Labor waste in government but not to be seen as anti-public sector.

The Coalition that has always thought it was the defender of fiscal rectitude but it has only once in its history proclaimed “small government” and even then didn’t “walk the talk”.

Instead, the slogan on the current Liberal website is “smaller government”, which is a suitably vague idea. Abbott told parliament last night that “government’s job is not to live people’s lives for them but to help people make the most of their opportunities.”

Connecting with the middle classes

Abbott wants to shift public sector workers from Labor and connect with them as “aspirationals” deserving government help. He can even portray himself as a volunteer fire fighter to increase his credibility with them as people who contribute to the community.

So stay tuned for attempts to expand his image and reputation with the community. Credibility of character is the gold political asset that convinces people.

He has been putting words into the government’s mouth by claiming Gillard is calling these people, such as parents who are a policeman and a nurse, “super-rich” because they earn $150,000 and will not receive family benefit. This limit signals “class war” against ordinary families by the government which is also hostile to small business.

Like Menzies with the original term, Abbott is appealing to their sense of grievance that they are hard done by. Of course this is the usual redescription and hyperbole that parties indulge.

What is amusing is that setting a limit to a welfare benefit is an injustice according to a party that elsewhere espouses individual effort and not sponging off the government. But where a deserving constituency is concerned, well that’s another matter.

The dangers ahead for Abbott are that his lack of policy detail – which was evident at the last election – will come back to bite him.

This is the strategic problem which may be addressed in the future by Coalition research. At this stage they do not have to worry about playing that card as Labor have not put strategic pressure on the Opposition Leader to announce policies. So time will tell. But at the moment Abbott is playing to his strengths.

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