Abbott’s leg spin to Rudd’s middle of the road
LOVERS of test cricket know the best thing about the five day game is its potential to ebb and flow. One team can look to be winning but then the character of the match changes - sometimes dramatically and other times in a cumulative, almost imperceptible way.
The importance of small things - a dropped catch for example - becomes obvious only in hindsight. Politics can be strikingly similar in this regard. In this longest of games, there is a general assumption that Kevin Rudd is a shoe-in at the next election.
Polls confirm this on a fortnightly basis and it would be a brave correspondent who predicted otherwise. But equally, the result cannot simply be assumed.
The advent of Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader presents a new dynamic. His choice of controversial former Howard government figures on his frontbench, and the possibility - admittedly detected more in the nostril hairs than anywhere else - that public sentiment is on the move regarding climate change, are other important new factors.
Fundamentally, the game has changed. From this point on, how well the newly configured Opposition performs and what this provokes from the Government will decide the result.
There’s no doubt Tony Abbott has crafted a frontbench in his own style and image. It fairly bristles with punchy right-wing contrarians particularly on climate change. Those elevated are the same people who put Mr Abbott in the job.
With a few notable exceptions such as in the retention of Joe Hockey and Christopher Pyne, and the promotion of Scott Morrison, Marise Payne, and Simon Birmingham, progressives have been mothballed.
The experienced Helen Coonan was convinced to step down in favour of new blood, some of which turned out to be Kevin Andrews, Bronwyn Bishop, and even Philip Ruddock - the latter being the only sitting MP who was there during the Whitlam years.
Nonetheless, 2010 promises a tantalising contest.
Where Kevin Rudd is risk averse, Tony Abbott is edgy. For him, his team and his policies, decisions are seen through one lens only, the fight. He knows he has just one shot at this and that `business as usual’ will inevitably leave him short of the mark.
His alternative? To play swashbuckling 20 / 20 to Kevin Rudd’s test-match dourness.
To pick attack dogs and zealots in the place of dull but worthy plodders. Policy development is out, criticism of the Government, in. He wants people who will take it up to the Government. People fired by a burning resentment of Labor. People unafraid of stepping on toes and bloodying a few noses even if sometimes it will be their own.
He wants them to fan out across the nation and hit the enemy hard in local communities and importantly, on talkback radio. It is a political strategy designed for the short-course - a kind of head-long dash for the line.
It is this aspect which may in the end, be most influential on Labor thinking about election timing. Government strategists are now actively debating this point. Their early conclusion is that Tony Abbott will get a honeymoon but the longer he has to run, the greater the chance he will make mistakes and overcook it.
Already, with less than a fortnight on the clock, there are signs they are right. For a man who knifed his former leader citing strong convictions on the climate change issue, Mr Abbott has shown a light grip on the detail.
He botched his explanation of the bi-partisan commitment to emissions cuts at his first door-stop press conference requiring his office to issue a clarification later that day. This week, he was caught wildly exaggerating the cost impacts of deeper emissions cuts even though the figures had been published by Treasury more than a year ago.
It’s the kind of seat-of-the-pants politics that might work in the short term but if voters detect a pattern of errors, of being fast and loose, doubts will surface. And doubt is fatal to the chances of aspiring national leaders.
This, in the final analysis, is Kevin Rudd’s ace in the hole.
To counteract it, Tony Abbott is trying to leverage the silent mainstream, what he calls ``Abbott’s Army’‘. This is his version of the Howard battlers. It’s a characteristically bold play effectively claiming the centre-point of Australian politics is to the right of where everyone else has historically agreed it is.
But he of all people should know this is unlikely to work because it is basically the same error Howard made with WorkChoices.
The biggest risk in the Abbott strategy however, is the selection of the voluble Nationals senator, Barnaby Joyce. This self-styled maverick, whom Mr Abbott calls ``the best retail politician in the country’’ has been remarkably effective as a one-man wrecking ball.
Few contest his role in cracking the docile popular consensus on emissions trading and by implication, on climate change. But using him as a frontbencher, especially on sober matters of economic policy, makes about as much sense as hiring the best surgeon you can find to manage a hospital.
He is colourful but he is also the quintessential loose cannon. His undisciplined utterances on Queensland defaulting on debt, banning Chinese investment in resources, and breaking up the big four banks, point to a wild ride.
There is a genuine question as to whether he will last the distance or blow up - maybe even quitting himself in frustration at being muzzled by shadow cabinet discipline.
For all these reasons, Kevin Rudd is being urged to wait.
At the end of this match, one leader will be not just defeated but humiliated - his tactics judged to have been all wrong. Or to put in Mr Abbott’s own cut-through language, seen either as a genius or political road-kill.
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