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Abbott's big problem is not his unpopularity, but his team

Date

Too many Coalition frontbenchers are invisible - or worse.

NEITHER our Prime Minister nor our Opposition Leader is popular. That shouldn't worry us at all. Governing a country and taking it to a better place is not a popularity contest.

Trying to judge the health or otherwise of our democracy on the sole criterion of the popularity of our leaders is a folly. The ingredients for a strong and vibrant democracy go way beyond the characteristics of our leaders. Leaders are, of course, important. But is their popularity important?

Take John Howard as an example. Plenty of people voted for him who might have answered the question ''Do you like him?'' with an embarrassed air of ambivalence if not negativity.

Respect is far more important than popularity. Howard had been told so many times that he was unelectable. So when he reminded his party room that no one is unelectable, it was a personal and potent message. Perhaps the clarity of that message is why his biography is called Lazarus Rising.

In popularity stakes, whoever is prime minister has nearly all the advantages over the opposition leader. The keys of office bring with them a mantle of superiority. Power, status and endless announcements about government spending are theirs without asking. International meetings enable them to rub shoulders with world leaders and bask in some sort of reflected glory.

These opportunities are considered important by them. Witness our current Prime Minister. In her early career one would not have described her as a friend of the United States. Thus it was surprising to some that her speech in the US Congress had such a sickening element of grovelling. Apart from that she was simply following the well-worn path of every Australian leader. The US is a long-term friend and ally. Our leaders should visit. At home, the rest of us just have to suffer being smothered with the photos revealing our leaders' pleasure with the trappings of power.

With all the opportunities for building stature and gravitas, a prime minister should, for most of the time, have it all over his or her opposition. That Gillard has not managed this is a real problem for her. My view is that her unpopularity is sourced neither to her personality nor to her policy views. Rather it stems from a deep-seated distrust. This started with the stabbing of a leader to whom she had professed loyalty and was compounded with the now infamous ditching of a promise that there would be no carbon tax under a government she led.

On the other hand, I do not think Abbott's low approval rating is of any great concern. Unpopular opposition leaders can storm to power and stay there. Both Howard and Bob Carr are good examples of this.

Equally important to consider is the fact that history is littered with failed opposition leaders who had their moments of basking in the warmth of popularity. John Hewson, Kim Beazley and Alexander Downer come to mind.

Abbott at the moment has none of the power and associated trappings available to the Prime Minister. His job demands holding the government to account, which can of itself bestow a negative image.

If he wins office at the next election, Abbott will no longer be burdened with a job that carries daily negativity. He will have real power and all the associated benefits. Then we will be able to see how the public measure him.

Abbott as prime minister would have to measure up both in how he conducts himself and in keeping his promises. Having made so much of Gillard breaking hers, there would be little wriggle room for arguments along the lines of ''yes, but things have changed''. Gillard wasn't allowed that escape clause.

One problem for Abbott is his team. We see only a few of them. Where are the shadow ministers other than Chris Pyne, Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull and a few others? Are they lazy or incompetent at working with the media? Or is the opposition being managed in such a way that others don't get a chance?

If it is the latter it is a big mistake. In opposition, more often than not, one has the luxury of deciding when to go on the attack. A good political point can often be made just as easily tomorrow as it could today. The opposition are the hunters. But in government you become the hunted. The opposition is always there, waiting for a kill.

If Abbott's team aren't out there hungry for daily hunting practice, how will they cope when they become the hunted?

The move from opposition to government is always difficult. If Abbott does become prime minister, his ministers will need to be out there every day both selling and defending the government. He needs to ensure they get a lot more practice.

Amanda Vanstone was a minister in the Howard government.

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430 comments

  • No Amanda, his biggest problem is that he is a variously Pell's puppet and Murdoch's marionette and always a bully who never lets the truth get in the way of one of his sensationalist headline grabbing outbursts.

    As the bleating over the Carbon Tax and MRRT shows, he is the boy who cries wolf...and the electoate is wising up to jim.

    Commenter
    Captain Grumpy
    Location
    Kingsville
    Date and time
    September 03, 2012, 7:14AM
    • His biggest problem is that he wants to annihilate what's left of Australia. He doesn't have a vision for a sustainable future. Politicians need to be better rounded than that. All he does is make points, and they're all negative and short sighted.

      Commenter
      sarajane
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      September 03, 2012, 7:44AM
    • Abbott's biggest problem is Abbott - he is just clearly not cut out for the job in any way.

      Commenter
      J
      Date and time
      September 03, 2012, 7:47AM
    • No Sarajane, Gillard had already done that. We need the Libs to fix things again.

      Commenter
      Peter Schmidt
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      September 03, 2012, 8:00AM
    • Another day, another anti-Abbott article in a Fairfax publication. Where is the criticism of Gillard and all her broken promises?

      The silence is deafening...

      Commenter
      Dave
      Location
      Western Suburbs
      Date and time
      September 03, 2012, 8:11AM
    • Like they are fixing Spain, I mean Queensland?

      Commenter
      GuybrushThreepwood
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      September 03, 2012, 8:16AM
    • @Dave,

      the article was writtern by Amanda Vanstone, she wouldn't be criticising Abbott for the sake of it.

      Commenter
      Michael
      Date and time
      September 03, 2012, 8:18AM
    • @Dave - you can't be serious? Maybe it's time for some anti-Abbott reporting, there has certainly been bucket loads for Gillard and Labor over the last few years. It's time the media turned their attention to Abbott and his endless inadequacies.

      Commenter
      J
      Date and time
      September 03, 2012, 8:20AM
    • Good on you Captain, you have hit the nail right on the head,Abbott is a self confessed person who is somewhat loose with the truth and would be a political nobody if it were not for the propaganda machine ie. the Murdoch press and the likes of A Jones and his ilk,but then as the leader Abbott is so prone to say" what ever will get me elected i will do, even if it means lying to the electorate because when i am in power i can do what i feel is right exercising my God given powers".

      Commenter
      srg
      Location
      nambucca heads
      Date and time
      September 03, 2012, 8:21AM
    • Dave, perhaps you should acquaint yourself with the Herald Sun or The Australian. Bastions of Abbott love-ins all over. Oh, and what are these 'broken promises' you speak of? Or is it simply another Liberal supporters rhetoric versus facts statement?

      Perhaps you should, also, be keen to acknowledge the multitude of Abbot's lies and deceit around the Price on Carbon, "illegal" asylum seekers or Chinese investment?

      The silence is deafening...

      Commenter
      Scott B
      Date and time
      September 03, 2012, 8:25AM

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