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Tony’s troops to take the fight to Labor

12 December 2009 1,285 views No Comment

THE immediate interpretation by much of the media of Tony Abbott’s first federal shadow ministry is that it is a turn to the Right for the Liberal Party and a return to some of the warhorses of the past. In some respects this is true.

But the first decisions by Abbott with respect to his personnel are more multi-layered than that.

In a much-needed move, Malcolm Turnbull, who in recent days has behaved like a petulant narcissist, has been replaced by the much more formidable Abbott.

But otherwise the opposition’s key leadership group remains the same: Joe Hockey as shadow treasurer, Christopher Pyne as education spokesman and leader of the house, Julie Bishop as spokeswoman on foreign affairs and Nick Minchin and Eric Abetz as leader and deputy leader of the Liberal Party in the Senate.

The important addition to this group is Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce as finance spokesman. It remains to be seen whether Joyce can work as part of a team. Either he will do so and, in the process, move from a maverick to a mainstream player or else prove incapable of being anything other than a public-oriented attention-seeker.

This team of seven will need to work closely together and to be united. If this happens, they may have a close to even money chance of beating the Rudd Labor government. But, to do so, they will need to bury historical animosities and they don’t have much time in which to achieve this.

Members of the federal opposition have spent most of the past two years fighting among themselves. This has let a not very accomplished Labor government off the hook in many areas.

But in the two periods when the Coalition focused on Labor, between May and July last year and May and July this year, it pegged back Labor’s lead. These periods were between the announcement of poor federal budgets and the middle of the year.

In the first period, the Coalition promised to cut taxes on fuel. It caused surprise by winning the Gippsland by-election with a 6 per cent swing.

In the second, it made government debt and the expanding budget deficit potent issues.

However, in July last year it went back to warring between the Turnbull and Brendan Nelson forces and in July this year it was saddled with the terrible Godwin Grech fake emails affair, from which Turnbull never recovered.

Thanks to Abbott clearly opposing the Rudd emissions trading scheme, the Coalition is taking the fight to the ALP. Hence the next election looks set to be a contest. Abbott may well have found an issue that affects the hip-pocket nerve of the Australian voter. He certainly is going to make Kevin Rudd explain Labor’s ETS, and the more the public delves into it the less it may like it.

This will be especially so if Abbott can create, and sell, a climate change action policy that achieves reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without the extensive money churn and waste, and the significant increase in unemployment, that he argues will result from Labor’s policy.

Apart from Bishop, the other members of the opposition seven (Abbott, Hockey, Pyne, Minchin, Abetz and Joyce) are politically savvy and strong media performers. They are all politicians who love a scrap with Labor and whom you would want on your side in a fight.

Labor will not underestimate them even if some, especially in the Fairfax media, are underestimating Abbott.

Ironically, while Abbott will enjoy the enthusiastic support of Minchin and Abetz, he may need Hockey and Pyne more. They have credibility with the people Abbott may sometimes seem to alienate: the urban voters, many of whom switched their vote to Labor at the 2007 election.

But with interest rates rising, the budget in deficit and the government in debt, those voters may well be looking to move back to the Liberal Party at the next federal election.

Hockey has what is being called the Sunrise factor, a reference to his positive and avuncular persona, developed through regular appearances on the Seven Network’s morning television show. He translates this into a media style that is friendly and believable. However, rather like Labor’s Kim Beazley before him, he has to overcome a reputation of being somewhat lazy (hence the nickname Sloppy Joe).

Pyne has ruthlessly pursued Julia Gillard’s so-called education revolution, exposing mismanagement and waste that has dented her previously Teflon-coated reputation, and has aggressively taken the fight to a dominant government during parliamentary question time. Gillard initially tried to dismiss him as a poodle, but by the end of the year Pyne was operating more like an attackdog.

Even though she sometimes performed poorly under Nelson and Turnbull, with a more focused Abbott as her leader Bishop could well play an important role in Western Australia and more generally among women.

Coupled with a somewhat forbidding media style, Abetz knows how to deliver a cut-through line. Who could forget “Kevin 747” as a play on Kevin07? Abetz will be required to take a message to small business on unfair dismissal laws and to business generally on what he perceives as growing union influence.

Minchin has emerged from this latest Liberal Party leadership change with enhanced power. He needs to ensure his leader has the unity that will be vital for limiting damaging distractions between now and election day.

As a former South Australian state director of the Liberal Party and machine man, Minchin needs to ensure Abbott has the necessary campaign funds and professional organisation behind him to effectively communicate the opposition’s message to the public, particularly to those who may change their vote.

If he works inside the tent, Joyce could be pivotal in winning back seats in rural and regional Australia. There are many to be won. If he stays on song, he has the capacity to resonate well with the Liberals’ and Nationals’ 750,000-strong small business base.

With the possibility of an election at any time from March to November, it is the job of the rest of the shadow ministry to constructively support this team.

Abbott intends to draw on the vote-pulling power among senior Australians of Bronwyn Bishop as the new opposition spokeswoman on seniors.

He will certainly use the knowledge of climate action, environment and heritage spokesman Greg Hunt and parliamentary secretary for climate action and the Murray-Darling Basin Simon Birmingham to craft a saleable climate change action policy.

Labor’s failure to deliver in reforming Australia’s underperforming and overloaded public hospitals will continue to be highlighted by opposition health spokesman Peter Dutton.

Abbott will hope new small business spokesman Bruce Billson will connect with the Coalition’s small-business base and that Scott Morrison as immigration spokesman will make clearer the distinction between Labor and the Coalition in the area of border protection and the handling of the burgeoning asylum-seeker arrivals in Australia. There will also be a role for the shadow attorney-general, George Brandis, who will handle the push by some Laborites for a charter of human rights. The Coalition will firmly oppose such a measure, hence delivering to Brandis an important part of the opposition’s strategy of rebuilding its base.

But there are others in the first Abbott line-up that are simply making up the numbers: Tony Smith in communications and Kevin Andrews in families, housing and human services, Warren Truss in transport and David Johnston in defence are all examples.

Now is not the time for the opposition to try to fight on many fronts. From what Abbott has done with his front bench, he seems to think so, too.

Waste, mismanagement, the economy, border protection, debt, deficit, union power: these are the issues that cause voters to support the Coalition parties and in the main Abbott has crafted a team to maximise his message and minimise errors in these areas.

When I reviewed Abbott’s book Battlelines in August, I compared his lively personal and political manifesto with Rudd’s recent essays, describing the latter as “duller than dishwater”.

In my concluding paragraph I argued that it was “still far from impossible that the member for Warringah will end up as leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party”.

Now that this has ensued, in an electoral contest with Rudd, the battlelines will be well and truly drawn.

For all of Labor’s bluster, the Prime Minister and his party know that with Abbott at the opposition helm, they well and truly have a fight on their hands.