Tony Abbott's shaky campaign - beginning of the end?

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Tony Abbott has spent most of this year hiding from scrutiny and waiting for what the media say is a certain election win later this year — but have the wheels started to fall off his campaign in the last few weeks? Matthew N. Donovan reports.


TAKE NOTE of this date. 10 April 2013.

In my opinion that is the date the Coalition's campaign started to crumble around them.

The much hyped release of their NBN alternative could hardly have gone worse. Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – or as Tony likes to call him, Mr Broadband – were clearly out of their depth at the awkward policy announcement of their "faster, cheaper and more affordable" broadband plan.

It was nothing short of cringe-worthy.

The content of the plan was thoroughly panned across the board and social media had a field day. Within hours, the tag #fraudband had been adopted on Twitter and memes decrying its lack of vision were springing up by the minute. Experts were quick to reject the idea that we shouldn't take fibre to the home (FTTH) but rather to the node (FTTN) and then use the existing copper network, yesterday's technology, to reach the home.

It will deliver much slower speeds than Labor's plan and quickly become redundant as technology and demand outpaces its roll out. An outcome that clearly isn't satisfactory for Australia's data and technology hungry consumers.

Not the best of starts when trying to address one of their greatest weaknesses — credible costed policies.

Within two weeks, Tony Abbott plunged his party into another publicly embarrassing situation, this time, asylum seeker policy.

On 23 April, he unveiled what he hoped would be a stunt to wedge Labor. Sadly, for him, it blew up in his face almost immediately.

He happily posed in front of a large roadside sign that stated 639 "illegals" had arrived in Australia since Labor took over, adding:

"Labor have lost control of our borders."

The response from some in the media was swift and pointed.

Jane McAdam from The National Times clearly wasn't impressed [IA emphasis]:

You cannot apply for a refugee visa before you leave a country because a "refugee" is, by definition, someone outside their country. Even if you cross a border, Australian embassies abroad cannot issue refugee visas to those on the move – such as people fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan. Further, it is highly unlikely that refugees will be able to get a visa of any other kind, such as a tourist or work visa.

For example, an Iraqi who applies to an Australian embassy for such a visa will likely be screened out, precisely because of the assumption that they will claim asylum on arrival in Australia. It is a catch-22.

For these reasons, the Refugee Convention prohibits countries from imposing penalties on asylum seekers who enter without a passport or visa. Indeed, in some cases arrival without documentation may in fact help to demonstrate that a refugee claim is compelling and credible.

Article 31 is one of the most fundamental elements of the Refugee Convention precisely because it underscores the right of people in distress to seek protection – even if their actions constitute a breach of a country's domestic immigration laws.

Indeed, even the two international treaties on human trafficking and smuggling both make clear that being a victim of trafficking or smuggling must not negatively affect a person's right to claim asylum and receive protection.

The opposition's use of the term "illegal" is designed to tarnish people's perceptions about the legitimacy of asylum seekers' claims. It is language that dehumanises and criminalises. Invoking it is either ignorant or deliberately mischievous, since the act of seeking asylum is not a crime, but the right of every individual.

This is nothing more than John Howard style dog-whistling and, happily, Abbott was challenged about these assertions at a press conference.

The sign was vandalised, or one might say corrected, to read:

How many illegal boats have arrived since Labor took over? 0

It was quickly taken down and replaced with another generic Coalition one.

It is quite hard to imagine that such an important principle can be misunderstood or consistently misconstrued for base political purposes with a certain segment of the electorate.

Once again, in what is becoming a theme, memes were produced at the expense of the man who wants to lead our country.

Indonesia is also unimpressed by his "turn back the boats" plan and Abbott, thus far, has been unwilling to directly bring it up with the Indonesian government. Another flop, in just two weeks.

We all know when he is probed about specifics of what he will implement in government the first words out of his mouth are: "scrap the carbon tax."

It is a promise he is clearly not backing away from, but it is nowhere near as poisonous for Labor as it used to be. There has been none of his predicted "wrecking ball" through the economy, nor "python squeeze", no "cobra strike".

How Canberra Times cartoonist David Pope reported on the impact of the carbon tax.

For years Abbott has suggested the cost of electricity will just go "up and up and up." A recent report says power prices could go down when Australia links with the European carbon trading scheme in 2015 and power companies have warned him about his much less cost effective "direct action" plan.

Not looking too good so far for what are major pillars of his election campaign.

A key Coalition staffer threatening to "slit the throat" of an eminent Australian at a QANTAS function only added to the headache.

Education is shaping up as the main issue this year and it is traditionally a weak point for the Coalition. The Gonski Review and the subsequent plan for school improvement are based on the clear understanding that the funding model for school education is broken and a needs based system must be set up nationally. States and territories are currently in negotiations with the federal government over funding arrangements. NSW only recently signed up to the reforms and funding, putting Abbott in an awkward situation.

Tony Abbott and Opposition Education Spokesperson Christopher Pyne are yet to be convinced that more money needs to be invested in our kids – and in a smarter way – despite all the evidence. He previously said he doubted the key states would sign on and it seems likely that he has been pushing Liberal states to reject the funding. Now NSW has signed on, will Abbott honour the agreement?

One of the memes that quickly sprang up in response to the Coalition broadband announcement.
One of the memes that quickly sprang up in response to the Coalition broadband announcement.

Combine these headaches with the recent release of inflation data showing, despite his cost of living scare campaign, it remains at low levels and his backtracking on his ability to deliver the promised tax cut to business and you can almost see the grand plan falling to pieces.

For months now, mainstream media have been saying the outcome of the election in September is a forgone conclusion. The polls are just too bad for Labor and all Tony Abbott has to do is turn up.

Quite clearly, it is true that if the polls were replicated in September Labor would lose. Going into an election having to pick up net seats is far from ideal.

However, what is lost in this conversation is the fact that polls are backward looking indicators and a snapshot in time.

My favourite analysis of polls is ABC Insiders' Poll of Polls, a monthly segment by Andrew Catsaras. In it, he averages all the polls over the previous month and gives some insightful commentary on where things stand.

His first segment of 2013 made some interesting points:

Well there is a great deal of misunderstanding about polls. An opinion poll is not some Delphic Oracle delivered to us from the gods, it's just an estimate of how people are likely to behave in a hypothetical situation: that being, if an election were held now.

And by aggregating the polls as we do on Poll of Polls, we're trying to get a more complete estimate, from a series of estimates, of how people are likely to behave in a hypothetical situation. And then we track those estimates over time to see if there are any trends emerging.

Now while such a measured approach might not suit the manic nature of the 24 hour news cycle with its insatiable desire for instant gratification and superficial analysis, it is the only sensible way that you can look at polls.

The 24-hour news cycle and the tough conditions in the newspaper industry mean that fair, balanced and reasonable analysis has increasingly given way to infotainment, intrigue and sensationalism.

The ever increasing prevalence of polls, especially in an election year, on every topic are perfect material for this purpose.

"A week is a long time in politics," so the saying goes. It only stands to reason, on that basis, five months is an eternity by comparison.

The weekly churn of water cooler topics and the media's veracious desire for and coverage of gotcha moments leads to wild swings in opinion in the sufficiently over-polled public.

This election, as they always are, will be fought on policy. Detailed, costed plans for Australia.

Running around the country with a booklet, pamphlet, brochure – whatever you want to call it – just doesn't cut it.

Tony Abbott readily admits that winning from opposition is difficult, as the government have the benefits of incumbency, policy achievements and resources.

This election will be fought on jobs, growth, education, the NBN, disability and restructuring our economy for the post mining boom era.

On every single one of those issues the government has a head start and a track record to point to. In many cases, Tony Abbott has no announced policy, which puts him at a distinct disadvantage.

I'm not the only one who has noticed that Abbott has gone to ground this year, hoping he will win without the normal traditional hard sell an opposition leader has to undertake in an election year.

He has wound back his appearances on Today and Sunrise and refuses to accept standing invitations from Q&A and Lateline. Meet The Press is considered "too dangerous."

ABC's 7:30 with Leigh Sales was again graced with his presence this week after his last appearance on the show deteriorated into what I'm sure gave his media advisers nightmares for weeks — if not months. It was the closest thing to a Hewson birthday cake moment for him.

Abbott's problem is he is a poor media performer, who doesn't think quickly on his feet and so can't handle deviating from his talking points when he gets a few curve ball questions. This has been shown time and time again.

He also has a habit of running away from press conferences when they get too uncomfortable and has trouble hiding his anger when things don't go as he had planned.

He is a brawler; Australians know this. They have seen it on display throughout his entire life, from his university years until this year, where he is increasingly desperate to present himself as the Downton Abbey loving "Sensitive Tony". A Tony that, those of us who have been watching for years know, doesn't truly exist.

The most successful of his tactics since taking over the Liberal Party leadership has been to make Prime Minister Gillard look aggressive and desperate by brawling day in and day out. He has lurched his party dramatically to the right with Tea Party tactics, masterminded by Cory Bernardi, his former parliamentary secretary and numbers man.

It is passing strange that many of the remaining remnants of what used to be the moderate base in the party are retiring this coming election — Judi Moylan MP, Mal Washer MPAlby Schultz MP and Senator Sue Boyce.

Several of these MPs have spoken out publicly on the Coalition's stance on asylum seekers and marriage equality and threatened to cross the floor on several occasions.

The moderates were well and truly put in the corner after Tony Abbott's knife-edge win over Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull.

The words moderate and Liberal Party no longer belong in the same sentence.

Another issue, as I see it, is the idea of the coalition of The Nationals and the Liberal Party. It is an unnatural but necessary alliance. Neither party could ever win in their own right.

Cracks have already been revealed on issues such as foreign ownership, wheat deregulation and the NBN and whether country areas will be disadvantaged when it comes to pricing under their recently released policy.

The LNP in Queensland quite clearly shows The Nationals hold very little power when it comes to delivering for regional Queensland in the extremely South East Queensland-centric government of Campbell Newman. I expect the same would occur on a national basis if Abbott was prime minister.

Julia Gillard may be struggling for popularity, but as I have pointed out, it is because of her need to deal with the relentlessly negative, deceptive, dog-whistling, "whatever it takes" tactics of Tony Abbott over the last 3 years. She has rarely been allowed to look prime ministerial and has had to fight for every vote to pass her government's legislation.

It has been ugly. But it has also been a very successful period of government, with every one of her over 450 pieces of legislation passing through Parliament.

Labor is mobilising their social media followers to apply pressure on the states.
Labor is mobilising their social media followers to apply pressure on the states.

Australians are not used to minority governments on a national level, with the last one being in 1940, and they clearly don't like it. Abbott has used that to his advantage.

It is, however, the parliament they voted for and has been a testing time for many close followers of politics.

Those of us who actively followed the GFC and its impacts know how well Australia has done to be where we currently find ourselves.

The opposition have consistently misrepresented history and facts and they will eventually have to address that fact.

The media, as much as they have been nothing short of a Liberal Party propaganda wing in recent times, will hopefully soon begin to apply the blow torch to Abbott's every word and action.

There has been a shift over the last few years with people getting most of their news online and increasingly from alternatives to the mainstream media, such as Independent Australia and social media.

The Labor social media campaign has been quite inspired and successful. It is through a concerted online campaign that Labor will be able to address the misconceptions around the governments record and their plans, as well as how we stack up internationally. Abbott is little more than a bystander on this front. The Coalition can't match Labor on social media.

Also worth mentioning at this point is that in the last month of the 1993 election, Paul Keating came from 5 per cent behind to retain government and win the "sweetest victory of all."

There is no doubt the government are underdogs.

Abbott is said to be in the driver's seat, but he has looked incredibly shaky when in uncomfortable territory recently.

He is notoriously hungry for power and has dreamed about this moment for a long time.

It is yet to be seen whether he will deliver or crumble under the pressure of his own expectations and restlessness quest for power.

(Disclosure: Matthew N. Donovan is a former ALP state candidate and is a Labor Party member.)

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