Tony Abbott’s opposition was on cruise control for a win in this year’s Australian election. In the wake of the ruling Labor Party’s leadership resolution with Kevin Rudd in command, Abbott’s ride has just got bumpier.
Abbott’s personal popularity wavered even as his Liberal-National coalition benefited from Labor’s woes, with consistent gaps in polls behind former leader Julia Gillard as preferred prime minister, until five months ago. The task now for Abbott, 55, is to build out a policy platform that was left without details during his focus on Labor’s leadership divisions.
While no party has come back from the deficit Labor faces in opinion polls, any increased public focus on Abbott’s negatives boosts the odds his coalition won’t win a majority in parliament’s upper house. Such a result would test political negotiating skills Abbott hasn’t had to hone while in opposition.
“There’s now going to be quite a lot of pressure on Abbott to actually present some policies -- Rudd has shown he’s adept at campaigning,” said Stephen Stockwell, a political analyst and Griffith University professor of journalism and communications in Brisbane. “Whether or not Rudd’s resurgence is a game changer comes down to Abbott’s response to the tougher challenge he faces. With Labor’s internal problems, he’s had an easy ride.”
Rudd, 55, who was sworn in as prime minister yesterday will seek to capitalize on a honeymoon period after ousting Gillard, 51, in a party-room vote the day before. One option is bringing the election forward from Gillard’s announced date of Sept. 14.
The Liberal-Nationals are already running advertisements highlighting Rudd’s previous vows not to contest Gillard for the job, and Labor lawmakers’ concerns about his leadership style. The most recent Newspoll, published in The Australian newspaper June 24, shows the coalition with a 14 percentage point advantage on a two-party preferred basis, designed to gauge which party is most likely to form a government.
In a Newspoll conducted June 18-20, 2010, just days before he was removed by Gillard in a backroom party coup, Rudd led Abbott on the question of preferred prime minister by 46 percent to 37 percent. Six months earlier, the gap had been 37 percentage points.
While Rudd must contend with the exit of former Treasurer Wayne Swan and other Gillard supporters, he will have one advantage Gillard lacked. In contrast to Rudd, who maintained a public presence even after losing to Gillard, the former prime minister said she won’t seek re-election for her seat of Lalor - - reducing the risk of further party infighting.
The new leader will need to build out a cabinet after the departure of seven ministers. His treasurer, Chris Bowen, little known to the public, takes over at a time of slowing economic growth.
Remaining unclear is whether Rudd will support some of Gillard’s big-ticket policy items that she struggled to sell to voters, including the nation’s first levy on greenhouse-gas emissions and a tax on mining company profits that will reap A$1.8 billion ($1.7 billion) less in revenue for the year to June 30 than previously forecast, according to budget documents released May 14.
Abbott vows to repeal the carbon and mining levies at a time when government revenue from company taxes is slowing.
While he has advocated a longer period of paid parental leave, some of his pledges lacked specifics, such as restoring “balance” to an industrial relations policy he says has tipped too far in favor of trade unions. He has promised to “stop the boats” carrying asylum seekers, usually from war-torn Middle East or South Asia nations, and seen by some citizens as unworthy of receiving welfare benefits.
A plan to consider giving tax breaks to the nation’s remote, sparsely-populated north in a bid to create a new “food bowl” was declared unconstitutional by Gillard.
Speaking to reporters on June 26, Rudd said Abbott was “a man steeped in the power of negative politics.”
Abbott, a Rhodes Scholar and former amateur boxer who studied for the priesthood, has been painted by Labor as a social conservative with sexist views. Gillard last October stood up in parliament and accused Abbott of “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism.”
He is vulnerable in some policy areas, particularly health and education, said John Warhurst, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. “He’s been effective as an opposition leader but that also means he’s often perceived as being too negative. People are now expecting to find out how he would govern the country.”
“Our chances have improved” under Rudd, Employment Minister Bill Shorten told 2UE radio yesterday. “He’s reflected upon what’s happened, he’s learned lessons about consultation, about listening.”
Rudd also signaled a new approach to his leadership. “Political life is a very hard life, a very hard life indeed,” he told parliament yesterday. “Occasionally it can be kind, more often it is not. So let us try, just try to be a little kinder and gentler with each other.”
Repairing the damage of years of Labor infighting won’t be easy. “I have been shocked, frankly, over the last three years, to meet ugly Australia,” independent lower house lawmaker, Rob Oakeshott, who isn’t contesting the next election, said in parliament yesterday of the attacks on Gillard as leader.
With signs of a slowdown in the world’s 12th-largest economy, momentum remains with Abbott. Rudd will have to rebut opposition attacks on Labor’s economic stewardship after the government failed to meet its pledge of a budget surplus in the current fiscal year.
While the economy expanded in 2012 at its fastest pace in five years, unemployment has risen in some areas, particularly with the loss of manufacturing jobs in electorates with a track record of voting Labor.
Even as the task for Rudd looms large, his return has injected an “X factor” into the race, said Warhurst from the ANU. Abbott would “rather be fighting Julia Gillard than Kevin Rudd.”
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