Many people have labelled Tony Abbott as Australia’s most effective opposition leader, but that’s nothing more than hyperbole, says Kieran Fitzgerald.
A number of commentators and media outlets have declared Tony Abbott to be “the most successful” or “the most effective” opposition leader that Australia has ever seen — or at least for the last forty years. While the term is open to interpretation about what “effective” means, even on a narrow interpretation, Abbott is only as effective as a number of other leaders before him. The true test will come at the next election in September. Anything before the result of that election is known is just pure hyperbole.
The sweeping claims about Abbott's “success” or “effectiveness” as Opposition Leader have come from a range of sources. Some are to be expected, for example Queensland LNP member Teresa Gambaro addressing the LNP Annual Convention. However, the claim has also been made by Abbott's old boss Dr John Hewson (himself once regarded as a highly successful opposition leader), Peter van Onselen (who bases his analysis “on purely political terms”, whatever that means), Gerard Henderson (who tempers his claim by stating that Abbott is the most effective opposition leader since Whitlam), and even David Marr in his Quarterly Essay on the man, also stating that he is the most successful of the last 40 years, since Whitlam's time. In its recent much-advertised series 'The Top 50', The Australian ran a glowing piece on Abbott, claiming that:
Tony Abbott is setting the political agenda, dictating government policy and frustrating Labor’s ability to govern in a way not seen in Australian politics in more than three decades. Arguably the most effective opposition leader since Gough Whitlam, Abbott has seen off one prime minister and possibly mortally wounded another.
To these reasons for Abbott's effectiveness, we can add the seemingly terminal position of the government in opinion polls and the low approval ratings of the Prime Minister. A closer examination of these matters, however, reveals Abbott's record as Opposition Leader to be less successful than such claims assert.
The biggest test of Abbott's leadership so far has been the 2010 election. Many applaud Abbott for almost leading the opposition to victory against a first-term government. The key word here is “almost”. In the winner-takes-all system of representative government, almost winning is, realistically, as good as getting thrashed — you still don't occupy the Treasury benches.
The hung parliament that voters delivered then required the two party leaders to negotiate with the crossbench MPs. It was expected that Greens MP Adam Bandt would side with the ALP, and that WA Nationals MP Tony Crook would do the same for the Coalition, leaving four Independents – three of whom are ex-National Party MPs representing rural electorates (Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott), and one from Tasmania who was, at one stage, a member of the Liberal Party (Andrew Wilkie).
While Bob Katter sided with the Coalition, the three other independents reached an agreement with Julia Gillard to support Labor. Were Tony Abbott the most effective opposition leader we have seen, he would have won the support of the Independents to form government. Instead, the Independents have been scathing of Abbott's approach to the negotiations. Wilkie revealed that he was appalled by Abbott's “reckless” offer of $1 billion to rebuild a hospital in Hobart. Windsor has been highly critical of Abbott's conduct during the negotiations, saying that Abbott was initially more interested in going back to the polls and later calling him “an absolute disgrace” who “begged for the job”.
Oakeshott revealed that Abbott "didn't negotiate for 15 days, and then he came in very late and very hard". This approach to negotiation was not effective and plainly was not successful. If Abbott had been able to convince two of these three to support the Coalition, he would be Prime Minister today. Failing to cobble together a majority in parliament cannot be seen as a success in a parliamentary democracy.
Since the 2010 election, the Gillard Government has struggled in the opinion polls, which appears to be the main source of Abbott's apparent effectiveness. The Government's legislative record, however, is substantial and has been negotiated through a parliament where they do not have a majority in either house, and often in the teeth of ferocious media criticism.
The current Parliament has had 420 bills passed and assented to by the Governor-General. The Government has not had any bills defeated in the House of Representatives, where Abbott only needs to switch two votes to defeat any bills, or to pass a motion of no confidence in the government. He has been unable to prevent the government from implementing its program, let alone “frustrate Labor's ability to govern”, as The Australian asserts. Nor has Abbott been able to force the government to an early election, in spite of the finely balanced numbers in the House and the government's poor approval ratings. Abbott has been unable to slow down the Government's agenda. It is true that Abbott has delivered some strong parliamentary performances, however the most memorable moment of last year in the House came with the Prime Minister's now-famous misogyny speech. Abbott's most memorable moment in the chamber has been when he ran out to avoid being counted in a vote.
The area in which Abbott has been most successful is the opinion polls. While debate rages about how important or not this is, the fact is that a government or opposition's standing feeds into the media coverage of them. The Opposition has performed strongly in the polls under Abbott, although the man himself remains personally deeply unpopular. In this sense, he has been effective at convincing people to vote for the Coalition. His success in this area cannot be denied. However, if opinion polls alone define the best opposition leaders, Abbott is no more successful than a number of opposition leaders that have come before him.
Arguably, a more successful Opposition Leader was Kevin Rudd in 2007, maintaining a high level of personal popularity and consistently beating John Howard in the preferred Prime Minister stakes. After the introduction of the GST, Kim Beazley led Labor to a huge lead in opinion polls and seemed certain to take office until the arrival of the MV Tampa. John Hewson was regarded as a successful Opposition Leader after the launch of the Liberal Party's manifesto Fightback! which put Bob Hawke on the back foot and contributed to his replacement by Paul Keating, who was plagued by poor opinion polls and seemed certain to lose the 1993 election to Hewson. Fightback!, with a GST as its centrepiece, dominated political debate and Keating's campaign against it led to his victory that year. When John Howard took over as Opposition Leader in 1995, he ran a remarkably successful campaign against Keating and achieved a landslide victory.
Each of the above examples can be regarded as at least Abbott's equal at an equivalent stage of the electoral cycle, with two going on to become Prime Minister. Going back even further, Malcolm Fraser as Opposition Leader was able to become Prime Minister before the inconvenience of an election, which he duly won well. As acknowledged by most commentators, Gough Whitlam was a highly successful Opposition Leader and set the political agenda in a way that has not been equalled since.
Abbott is seen as an effective and successful Opposition Leader because the opinion polls indicate that he will win the next election. This does not give him a special status that other people in his position have not held before, and few have been as close to power as he was in 2010, before he then let it slip away due to their own poor judgment and actions.
If Abbott is to be judged purely by opinion polls, let it be so, but exaggerated claims about his effectiveness are little more than hyperbole at this stage.
(You can follow Kieran Fitzgerald on Twitter @kjob85.)
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