'Anyone But Abbott' a chance for Liberal moderates to rise

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The non-partisan campaign to unseat Tony Abbott in Warringah at the next Federal election is a long shot, says Dr Benjamin Thomas Jones, but political miracles are known to happen in Australia.

Front page of 'Anyone but Abbott' website. (Click on image to access website.)

Plato famously claimed that
“…those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber”.

In Australia, the issue is not intelligence so much as an entrenched culture of political apathy. If the polls are to be believed, we are enduring an unpopular prime minister until we can sweep to power an opposition leader with an even lower approval rating. Have we simply stopped caring?

Sarah Madison recently opined that political debate in Australia is at its lowest ebb. The commentariat seems to agree with her. Madison places the blame squarely at the major parties noting that they have
‘…no vision, no aspiration and, consequently, no connection with the Australian people’.

While flagellating politicians is a beloved Australian pastime, the old adage that in a democracy, you get the government you deserve still rings true. The uncomfortable truth may be that the blame lies with the electorate for not demanding better.

One group who appear to be taking this message to heart is the Anyone But Abbott campaign. ABA is a grassroots, non-partisan organisation whose stated purpose is to oust Tony Abbott from the federal seat of Warringah, which he has held since 1994. The group believe that Labor will ‘almost certainly lose the next federal election’, but are convinced Abbott lacks the policies and the
‘…strength of character to effectively unify and deliver prosperity to a nation after a period of prolonged divisiveness’.

In reality, ABA is attempting to wrestle power away from the small but powerful Liberal right faction and return it to the moderates with the group openly endorsing moderate heavyweights, Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull as ‘higher calibre’ leaders.

The Liberal Party lurched to the right under the decade-long rule of John Howard with the timid presence of moderate treasurer and deputy prime minister, Peter Costello, doing little to stem the tide. Following the crushing 2007 election defeat, there was some hope of a moderate revival and a rediscovery of some of the small ‘l’ liberal values for which Robert Menzies named the party. Although it was nominal right member Brendan Nelson who initially landed the opposition leadership, it was effectively a poisoned chalice with Kevin Rudd enjoying the highest popularity rating of any prime minister.

Once the honeymoon ended, the Liberals looked to Malcolm Turnbull and the moderates to make the party attractive again. Turnbull’s fatal mistake was to keep as leader his consistent stance that climate change is real and the government must have a policy to address it. The powerful right faction leader, Nick Minchin orchestrated a coup d’état from the Senate.

The moderates still had the numbers to install one of their own – Joe Hockey – but, incredibly, they managed to foil what should have been an exercise in rubber stamping. Too many moderates gave a sympathy vote to Turnbull and it was he, rather than Hockey who faced Abbott in the final round. Abbott’s leadership is effectively the result of a Liberal Party administrative error. He was not wanted (and largely is still not wanted) by his party and he is not wanted by the wider electorate and yet – though an unparalleled campaign of endless negativity, cushioned by a largely acquiescent media and a weak government – Tony Abbott stands poised to become the prime minister of Australia.

This is where ABA comes in. If the Liberal Party is unwilling or unable to remove Abbott, then the people of Warringah may have to do it for them. This is easier said than done, of course. Abbott holds his seat by a very comfortable 59 per cent safety margin. It is unlikely the ALP or Greens will pour much energy into Warringah. The Sydney Morning Herald has recently described ABA as a ‘token gesture’. This view is too dismissive of a group which has gained great support and both local and national media coverage in its short existence. That said, ABA still have a mountain to climb. Political miracles are not without precedent in Australia, but there are five main things ABA need to get right if they are going to pull off what may just be the biggest miracle yet.

1. Court the Liberal vote.

The immediate problem facing a campaign like this is that it will hold far more appeal to Labor and Greens supporters than Liberals. The candidate must present themself as someone seeking to improve the Liberal Party rather than beat it. It may be necessary for the candidate to publically commit themselves to supporting the Liberals in the case of a hung parliament. If Liberal voters see this as an opportunity for party renewal, not a chance for Labor to cling to power, they may just be swayed to put ABA first and the Liberals second.

2. A message of empowerment.

In a climate of political apathy, it is important that ABA stresses that people power and democracy truly can bring about great changes. The message should come loud and clear — Warringah can choose the next prime minister. The power is in their hands.

3. Big issues.

The ABA candidate must be a big thinker who talks about big issues. This is not a campaign that can be won with promises about the Manly ferry or other local issues. ABA is asking a huge 9 per cent of the electorate, who previously voted for Tony Abbott, to change their minds. The issue must be: what kind of prime minister will Abbott be? And would they, as Liberal voters, prefer to see one of the moderate leaders take his place?

4. Straight talk.

Julia Gillard has been plagued by the impression that she is dishonest ever since she won the prime ministership off Kevin Rudd. Tony Abbott also is perceived as dishonest. His recent performance on the 7:30 Report revealed a man completely incapable of giving a straight answer.

The ABA candidate must take a leaf out of John McCain’s playbook and present the campaign as the straight talk express. Nothing could juxtapose an Independent better against Abbott than a commitment to frank and honest answers.

5. Be positive.

This last one is very tricky, considering the nature and even the name of the campaign, but ABA must not simply be a prolonged criticism of everything Tony Abbott has ever said or done. Once the candidate is chosen, the campaign should abandon the ABA moniker and simply be John/Jane for Warringah. The candidate must have strategically chosen policy positions which oppose Abbott but are in line with Turnbull and Hockey. Advocating an Australian republic is an obvious example, particularly given that Warringah voted for the republic in 1999. Other areas include the carbon price, which Turnbull supported but Abbott vehemently opposes. The candidate should take the line that, now in, the price should stay but be lowered — even to zero if needs be. There are a range of other issues, but the balance of the campaign needs to be committed to presenting a positive independent candidate with positive policies that will lead to a Coalition government that can unite the country, rather than an Abbott led government that would see a deep divide.

The campaign will obviously rise or fall based on the quality of the candidate put forward. ABA need an articulate person with a deep knowledge of Australian politics, a thick-skin and an indefatigable spirit. The campaign will need to run continuously from now until the next election, tenaciously knocking on every door and speaking to every Liberal voter possible. It is a long shot, but it is far from a token gesture. With hard work, a strong message and a little bit of luck, this long shot may just pay off.

(You can read more by Benjamin Thomas Jones on his blog Thematic Musings.)

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