Abbott Policy Test Looms After Labor’s Leadership Resolution

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 polls putting him 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’s Honeymoon

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-National coalition is 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.

“For just the second time in three years an incumbent Labor government tore down a prime minister, an extraordinarily grave event in the fabric of our national life,” Abbott told a televised party room meeting in Canberra today. “Kevin Rudd only had a plan to restore himself to the prime ministership. Newsflash, Kevin: It is not all about you.”

Polling Gap

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.

Labor has already received a fillip, a ReachTEL automated phone survey conducted yesterday of 3,018 Australians indicated. The coalition’s two-party preferred lead narrowed to 4 percentage points from 16 points in a survey conducted May 3. Rudd led Abbott as preferred prime minister, 51.6 percent to 48.4 percent. Even so, 56.9 percent said Labor couldn’t win the election, against 30.2 percent who said it could. No margin for error was given.

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.

Cabinet Formation

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 in Lalor - - reducing the risk of further party infighting.

The new leader needs 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. Speaking to reporters in Canberra today, Rudd said policy changes would be announced after consultation with his cabinet, to be sworn in on July 1.

Rudd must decide whether to 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.

Policy Outlines

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, seen by some citizens as unworthy of receiving welfare benefits. Hundreds of illegal migrants, often from war-torn Middle Eastern and South Asian nations, have drowned in the waters between Indonesia and Australia.

Rudd will visit Indonesia on July 4-5 for the annual meeting of the two countries’ leaders, his office said in a statement emailed to reporters today.

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.

Rudd said today that he returned to the leadership to avoid a “catastrophic” election defeat for Labor. “The government’s about bringing the country together, not dividing it,” Rudd said. He challenged Abbott to a public debate over the country’s debt and deficit within the next two weeks.

Conscience Vote

Rudd also said he supported same-sex marriage and Abbott should let coalition lawmakers vote in parliament according to their views on the issue. Abbott in an interview with Fairfax Media published May 4 dismissed the possibility of a conscience vote after the election. “I am strongly opposed to any change and I imagine that a strong majority in the coalition party room will remain opposed to any change,” he said.

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.”

Health, Education

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.”

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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