The political season has formally begun, with the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, addressing Liberal faithful in western Sydney on Sunday as the start of a mini-campaign said to be focused on showing that the Coalition is a party ready for government, with policies and ideas, as well as a well-established critique of the shortcomings of the Gillard Labor government. The campaign has a big focus on being positive. Partly, this is in response to the perpetual Labor claim that Abbott has been essentially negative and destructive over the past two years, without saying or showing what the Coalition would do. Abbott and his team recognise that, at the beginning of a year in which there must be a federal election, voters are as focused on what they can hope and expect from the Coalition as on being warned of the risk of giving the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, another chance. The present polls suggest that voters have made their judgments, generally adversely, about Gillard, but are not yet persuaded that Abbott himself would be better. Labor has homed in on, and sought to shape these popular uncertainties. The success of Abbott's mini-campaign may not only be in polling evidence that the Coalition has a winning edge, but in evidence that Abbott is regarded by a majority as an authentic embodiment of Liberal virtues, and the natural party leader.
Doing this is not merely a matter of policies - or policies constructed as firm promises to build a particular road, meet some target or change some priority. It's about philosophy, trust and courage under fire. Labor is right to seek to pin Abbott down on economic and budget commitments: on Sunday Abbott quietly dropped his usual assertion - or promise - that a Coalition government would achieve a surplus in its first year in office.
John Howard held office not only because of specific promises, but because people felt comfortable with his instincts: people believed that they ''knew'' him, and were generally confident that he could do a fresh crisis in a predictable and competent way. It is by no means clear that voters have that feeling about Abbott, even if he has been three years Leader of the Opposition, and on the national stage for more than 20. No doubt this is due in part to unfair Labor blackguarding, but it is also due to a perception of tension between his personal beliefs and the ones he represents as leader of his party, the fear that he is more Dr Yes than Dr No (saying what his particular audience wants to hear) and the sense that he does not really share conservative economic philosophies.
Over the year ahead, Labor will be seeking to further undermine Abbott. Coalition supporters should remember a time 20 years ago when it was plain that most Australians had decided the Keating Labor government had to go. By the end of that year, Paul Keating was re-elected, in major part because he made fear of the Coalition's leader, John Hewson, rather than faith in Keating, the issue.