There’s much to like about Tony Abbott. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to who has met him (I’ve known him slightly since my mid-1990s Sydney days) finds him to be engaging and affable. I find his internal struggles to reconcile his Catholicism with his political imperatives and personal desires interesting and even appealing. If other Liberals change their minds because they never believed in anything in the first place, Abbott sometimes seems to change his mind because he believes in too many things, which are competing for his loyalty.
But can things that make him attractive as a person make him successful as a Liberal leader? The pundits are saying he has trouble with women. Kerry O’Brien and Nic Economou both said this on the 7.30 Report tonight, Bernard Keane at Crikey said that he is ‘deeply unpopular with female voters due to his hardline and aggressive Catholicism’. But the evidence for this is thin.
– the Newspoll this week in fact found that women voters preferred Abbott over Turnbull. We should not confuse the self-appointed feminist representatives of women with women voters. The Newspoll this week found that Abbott’s support was near identical between male and female voters.
Abbott is not a simple ideological conservative. His centralist views, for example, put him outside the conservative mainstream. In my criticism of his recent book Battlelines, I argued that the problem-solving approach he adopted as a Howard minister and still defends leads to a far larger and more interfering government than most people on the centre-right would prefer. However, this approach does reflect the Australian public’s approach to things. They want problems fixed.
That said, the Catholic conservative elements of Abbott’s political beliefs – on abortion, on euthanasia, on stem cell research and on gay marriage (I think – I can’t actually recall what he has said on the matter) – are at odds with public opinion. On the other hand, these issues rarely come before the federal parliament and some are dealt with by conscience votes. None of them are likely to be election issues in 2010.
Obviously what Abbott most needs is a political strategy that will avoid a wipe-out in next year’s federal election, and that has to include a way of handling the climate change issue. Turnbull’s strategy was to neutralise the issue by doing a deal with the government, assuming that the people passionately opposed to the ETS had nowhere else to go but the Coalition. Abbott’s strategy is to confront the ETS head on, criticising it as a big new tax.
On my reading of the climate change polling, there is political scope for an anti-ETS campaign. The alarmist case has been losing popular support, and a significant minority of Australian households will be substantial losers from the ETS. The others will see a shift in relative prices but receive government handouts to cover the cost; it’s harder to read the politics of that. But while I think there is scope for such a campaign, and believe that the polls would shift further against the ETS if the public was better informed about its implications, I am not at all sure that this will be enough to preserve the Coalition vote at the next election.
The outright ‘denialist’ position would seem to have no prospect at all of achieving majority support, and a significant number of Liberal and swinging voters will continue to want action on climate change. Yesterday’s Nielsen poll had Liberal voters 52-39 in favour of an ETS, and to improve from current low polling figures (though interestingly the last week has not had a dramatic effect on support) the Liberals must attract voters currently supporting Labor. Abbott was tonight talking about various non-ETS ways of reducing carbon emissions, but really there are no easy options.
Even before the mess of the last couple of weeks the 2010 election was clearly going to be lost. The goal has to be avoid such a wipe-out that we have an effective one-party state. NSW is a warning of what can happen when you get to that position. I hope Abbott can pull it off, but for many reasons – some to do with him, but most to do with the state of the party and the difficult issues any leader must face – I’m not at all sure that he can.