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Sunshine-style strategy could help Abbott

25 April 2010 1,503 views No Comment

TWO things are clear. In this year’s federal election Queensland will be the most crucial state, followed by NSW. To win seats off the ALP, let alone become prime minister, Tony Abbott will need to beat Kevin Rudd’s slick campaigning style and election techniques, most of which the Prime Minister learned in Queensland.

The issue for Abbott now is to do the in depth homework to position himself with a tactical and policy armoury to lead in to the actual campaign. He needs especially to understand how campaigns have been run in Queensland for the past 12 years. That will enable him to anticipate Rudd’s election strategy.

Abbott needs to appreciate that Rudd is a Queenslander and that his political thinking is influenced by this fact. Indeed, understanding the Queensland campaigning style will be the key to Abbott’s electoral success or failure.

Most commentators have concluded that governments normally get a second term unless there is a catastrophe. For most of Rudd’s first term, the catastrophe has looked like the Liberal Party. But Abbott has changed that. There is now hope in the party and genuine feeling that Abbott may even have a chance of victory.

The challenge for Abbott is to articulate clear policies that will lead the public debate. If Abbott doesn’t embrace the big-picture policies for Australia’s future then Rudd certainly will. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s bold health reform agenda is the first foray of Rudd’s campaign which, unless Abbott takes the front foot on this and on other issues, may leave him trailing in Rudd’s wake.

Four strategies could change the Australian political climate and push the federal campaign in favour of Abbott.

The first strategy is Abbott setting Australia’s policy agenda for education and welfare (as well as health) for the next 20 years. Such a clear vision would demonstrate for many that Abbott is ready to be prime minister and would undermine Rudd’s policy wonk reputation. The Prime Minister will not be able to restrain himself in wanting to run a policy campaign. That is the Queensland way.

Health, education, welfare and refugee policies are crucial for the positioning of the nation for the challenges of the 21st century.

As a former health minister, Abbott has a clear understanding of the long-term challenges and complex nature of health delivery. This means he can either counter or neutralise Rudd’s far-reaching health reforms. But more importantly, with skill and application, Abbott can promote his own long-term vision of education and welfare reform, plus a clearly thought-out position on refugees, immigration and population policy.

The second strategy is that Abbott must highlight and recommit to the Howard government’s sound economic management practices to guarantee Australia’s economic future.

Australians regard the Howard years as ones of sound economic management, and by next month’s federal budget Abbott needs to be seen increasingly as a sound economic manager.

The third strategy is to get the Liberal Party to learn how to campaign effectively in marginal seats to overcome the Labor Party’s campaigning dominance in these seats.

Mike Rann won in South Australia because the Labor Party out-campaigned the Liberals in the marginals.

It is clear the Liberal Party is no match on the ground to the state Labor machines in targeted campaigning. The Liberals need to spend the money necessary to get the right people to target the swinging voters or this could be the difference between winning and losing in the key marginal federal seats. Just ask the SA Liberals.

The fourth strategy is to minimise the Queensland style in Rudd’s campaigning methods.

Only three Australian political leaders have won four elections in recent Australian political history: Bob Hawke, John Howard and Peter Beattie.

Hawke and Beattie had a similar populist campaigning style. Howard was more restrained but could mix it with the best of them when he needed to. Hawke was the federal ALP’s best campaigner in Queensland. Queenslanders loved him and the results showed. They did not have the same affection for Paul Keating.

But the Queensland style is something special. Rudd had to watch Beattie keep winning large majorities in Queensland for almost 10 years as “Honest Pete” rolled out the sincerity and personal stories and destroyed his political enemies with what seemed to be genuine apologies.

As a long-serving premier, Beattie gave the impression of just being a good guy, but underneath this public facade was a very clever political strategist who, like Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was underestimated repeatedly by his opponents and media commentators alike.

Rudd may deny it furiously, but he is using the same Beattie tactics, ranging from holding community cabinet meetings across the country to allowing his Nambour family history to be used to make a point at every opportunity.

Rudd has already resorted to the public apology and acceptance of responsibility approach. So far at least, many Australians seem to like it.

Rudd uses the Brisbane Broncos football team and sporting events as a campaigning tool. So did Beattie and Hawke.

But Rudd is not as good a campaigner as were these seasoned hands. The Prime Minister often looks wooden with people, is prone to get cranky with staff and frequently appears to use words and phrases that do not connect with ordinary Australians.

The key for Abbott is to put Rudd under pressure by using his own direct style forcefully and never letting Rudd dominate the policy agenda.

Queenslanders with inside knowledge know Rudd is not good under constant political pressure and becomes quite unpleasant. Hawke and Beattie loved campaigning. Deep down, Rudd doesn’t like other people. In fact, the only people who really like and respect the Prime Minister seem to be those who do not know him.

Rudd faces the handicap of the unpopular state Labor governments in Queensland and NSW. The truth is the Bligh government has lost its way so badly that it is hardly recognisable as having any link to the Beattie years and Premier Anna Bligh is in a terminal political position with her party facing many years in the political wilderness. The same also applies to state Labor in NSW.

Abbott’s way to beat the Queensland style is to engage people at every opportunity as Hawke and Beattie did: in shopping centres, malls and public meetings. If Abbott shows himself as a genuine man of the people who presents real policy alternatives, especially in education, welfare and health, and who at the same time is seen as a sound economic manager, he will overcome the Rudd’s Queensland style.

Then in coming months, we will have a real contest federally, which Abbott may yet win.

The Weekend Australian, April 24-25, 2010