by Michael O'Neill
September 5th, 2013

Polls are predicting a sizeable win for the opposition conservative coalition, led by Tony Abbott, at Saturday’s Australian federal election. Abbott had been widely considered – even by his own team – to be ‘unelectable’ (he is leader of the Liberal party by one vote). However, he has boldly shaped his once dysfunctional opposition into a united, disciplined team much in his own ‘action man, take no prisoners’ image. That is to say, muscularly determined.

Tony Abbott is a marathon running, former Catholic seminarian who, prior to entering parliament, successfully led the anti-Republic campaign ‘Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy’ (the man he replaced as Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, led the losing Republican movement).

A social conservative with a ‘blokey’ image, Abbott has consistently, until this week, had a personal approval rating lower than that of his opposite Labor PMs, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. Conversely, the Party he leads has rated higher than the government, which of course prompted Labor’s bloody leadership divisions.

Labor admits that it underestimated Abbott. They considered him, as many in his own party once did, volatile and unpredictable with outdated, traditional views. There have been attempts to brand him misogynistic and anti gay.

He has three articulate and accomplished twenty-something daughters, a business woman wife, female Chief of Staff and Deputy Leader, and a number of women in his shadow cabinet. He has also pledged a generous paid parental leave programme in the battle for the ‘working women’ vote. And he is close to his high-profile lesbian sister. Apart from saying that one of his female candidates had ‘sex appeal’, he has mostly stuck to a prepared script.

Much of that script has been about certainty, capitalising on the bloody internal divisions of the Labor government that has sacked two Prime Ministers (Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard), since Rudd led them to a sizeable victory in 2007. That election resulted in then PM, John Howard (and Abbott mentor), losing his own seat – a rarity in Australian politics. The Abbott team is trying to keep its sense of schadenfruede in check now that polls are predicting Prime Minister Rudd may suffer the same ignominy.

Visitors to Australia are struggling to understand how a government that has been at the helm of an economy the world wants to replicate, including surviving a GFC mostly unscathed, can be polling so badly. The answer is of course, as Tony Abbott has so eloquently and brazenly highlighted, division.

Abbott surprised almost everyone when he came very close to beating a freshly installed PM Julia Gillard at the 2010 election. Some might claim he won by forcing her into a minority government, dependent on the Australian Greens and Independents. Such an arrangement is viewed to be a large part of Labor’s undoing.

Australians are unused to minority governments. They are uncomfortable with the obvious cattle-trading axiomatic in making minority governments work. As a keen sportsman, including an active member of his local surf-life saving team (cartoonists draw him in red, skimpy, swimming trunks known as ‘budgie smugglers’), Abbott appreciates that like smashing sporting results, Australians want confident governments with convincing mandates. This is despite Gillard proving herself a deft hand at managing the balance of minority government,  and securing a record number of legislation throughout the term of her difficult premiership.

Besides uncertainty – and Labor’s ugly division – key issues in this campaign include the ‘flood’ of asylum seekers arriving on rickety, fishing boats via Indonesia, cost of living and climate change policies. By far the most dominant issue is the rise in people seeking asylum, or ‘irregular maritime arrivals’.

The first Rudd Labor government of 2007 was quick to water down the stringent rules, including offshore processing of refugee applications, instituted by former Liberal PM, John Howard. Howard’s now famous – and once pilloried – claim that, ‘We will decide who comes to Australia’, is now proudly repeated by the Opposition and it has resonated.

The Australian Labor Party has recently tried to counter the effective campaign by instituting strict new asylum seeker rules such that anyone arriving by sea, will be transported to camps on remote Manus Island (off Papua New Guinea) and the small pacific nation of Nauru. This policy reversal comes at great cost to taxpayers, and has not yet resulted in smaller arrival numbers. Asylum seekers can expect a five year wait for their claims to be processed, and will also now not be resettled in Australia.

The carbon tax, famously introduced by Julia Gillard after promising never to do so, has become a key pillar of the Tony Abbott agenda. It is, he says, ‘written in blood’ that he will repeal the tax.  This could mean another election within six months, should the Senate not pass his repealing legislation.

Business has been warned by the Coalition that it expects much more obvious support. There has been some pointed criticism from Coalition ranks that the business community was unforgivably silent when the Howard government introduced pro business industrial relations rules that effectively contributed to its downfall – including the loss of Howard’s own blue-ribbon seat.

Memories are very long down here.

Jacquelynne Willcox is senior vice-president, Public Affairs, Government Relations and Crisis Management, Australia, at Weber Shandwick

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