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Step aside Bill Shorten: Tony Abbott is the best Opposition Leader in Parliament

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Abbott and Putin in 2014 (image via President of Russia website).

As the Coalition’s polling numbers go from bad to worse and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s clumsy attempts at connecting with the electorate continue to fall flat, there is a mood of excitement and possibility among Labor Party supporters.

There is an understandable amount of self-congratulatory back slapping going on within Labor’s ranks, as analysts and bookies both see Labor taking government in the next election as all but a certainty. However, this only tells a fraction of the tale held by the last five years of federal politics.

Since the 2013 election, the nation has witnessed the rise and fall of Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership, the blowing up of the [Turnbull] Government and finally the elevation of the accidental Prime Minister Scott Morrison to the top job.

Looking at the past five years from a purely analytical standpoint, one could argue that Tony Abbott has been the most successful parliamentarian in the role of Opposition Leader to the Coalition Government. Despite Labor building a strong political narrative in the years since the 2013 election, Bill Shorten has effectively engaged in a small target opposition strategy for much of that period.

The Coalition Government was seemingly always tripping into one completely avoidable calamity or another, whether it was the Barnaby Joyce saga, Cory Bernardi’s defection or repeated leadership spills. As a result, Bill Shorten often had to do remarkably little to gain such a commanding lead in the opinion polls.

During his Prime Ministership, Abbott engaged heavily with his own personal brand of conservative politics, introducing policies such as university fee deregulation and the proposed Medicare co-payment, both of which were heavily unpopular with the electorate and even voters who are part of the Coalition’s base.

This blindness to the obvious differences between Abbott’s personal ideology and the values held by the Australian people often did Bill Shorten’s job for him, probably better than Shorten could have if Abbott had of successfully read the mood of the electorate.

When Turnbull ascended to the top job, arguably the most vocal and successful critic of his policies was once again Tony Abbott. Through his influence over the right wing of the Coalition, Abbott consistently fired up his allies to oppose any move of Turnbull’s that could possibly be construed as a betrayal of the conservative base of the Liberal Party.

Key initiatives such as genuine action on climate change and reforming negative gearing were repeatedly jettisoned from Turnbull’s ideological playbook, as Abbott and the Coalition right faction dragged Turnbull away from the political centre, time and time again.

Once again all Shorten had to do the vast majority of the time was watch the Coalition implode, as Abbott and other prominent members of the Coalition right tore Turnbull’s Government apart, hampering the possibility of Turnbull using his "small l" Liberal credentials to win back support from swing voters.

Despite the best efforts of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the Coalition continues its downward trend begun by his predecessors. From cringe-worthy attempts at being a “fair dinkum” everyday bloke to misguided political thought bubbles being trotted as policy, Morrison’s Prime Ministership seems to have only accelerated the downward spiral of the Coalition’s fortunes.

Shorten has shown a great deal of political skill to unite a bitterly divided Labor Party behind his leadership, after their disastrous showing in the 2013 election. Since then, the Labor Party has created an appealing political narrative based upon shared values and hope for a better tomorrow.

Despite his political acumen and leadership in building an appealing policy platform, the wider electorate has no real affinity for Shorten or his leadership. A potential victory for Shorten and Labor will be a punishment for the Coalition doing its best impression of opposition from government, not an overwhelming endorsement of a potential Shorten government.

How Shorten will perform as Prime Minister is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain, his time as PM will be a world away from the easy victories often handed to him by a bitterly divided and out of touch Coalition Government.

Tarric Brooker is a freelance journalist and political commentator. You can follow him on Twitter @AvidCommentator.

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