Shaun Carney: Opinion
Digital image: Judy Green

Digital image. Photo: Judy Green

THE opinion polls have, since late 2010, told us two apparently contradictory things about Tony Abbott: he is not popular, and he would win an election in a landslide. The same polls have contained seemingly less contradictory information about Julia Gillard: that she is not popular but would lose an election in a landslide.

For the Labor Party, the last feature of the political landscape that still provides it with the faintest sliver of hope is Tony Abbott's consistent disapproval rating - the fact that his dissatisfaction figure always exceeds his satisfaction score. The government's thinking runs along these lines: no matter how low the Prime Minister's personal standing is, the Opposition Leader remains stuck in the same negative territory.

This supposedly leaves open the possibility that when voters have to make up their minds at the next election, their long-held doubts about Abbott will cause them to have one last look at Gillard and the government, and to at least consider whether Labor deserves to be re-elected on the basis of going with the devil they know. Within this scenario, Abbott is held to be ''unelectable'' because of his brash, aggressive persona.

It is a fine theory but it fails to get around a few things, chiefly the fact that most of the polls this year have shown Gillard with a higher disapproval rating than Abbott, and the history of political polling, which pretty much by default awards opposition leaders lower personal ratings than their incumbent opponents.

Let's face it, if you're looking to the next election who would you rather be: Abbott or Gillard? The Nielsen poll taken for Fairfax papers after last month's budget showed Gillard with 25 per cent net disapproval, Abbott with 8 per cent and the Coalition holding a 16 percentage point lead after preferences.

This week, there were stirrings in the breasts of some ministers when Newspoll registered a two percentage point lift in Labor's primary vote to 32 per cent, a fall in Abbott's personal standings and a lift in Gillard's approval. Those movements put the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader virtually on level pegging: Gillard with 30 per cent net disapproval and Abbott with 29. On voting intention, however, it was a different story. After preferences, Labor is on 46 per cent, the Liberal-National parties on 54 per cent.

Whether the number of Abbott's detractors in the community is the same as Gillard's or not, the truth is that his problems with voters do not appear to be getting in the way of the Coalition's electoral prospects, which, by any measure, are very, very good.

The times have suited Abbott and his approach to politics. Abbott's prosecution of the Liberal cause is relentless and unyielding. He eschews nuance, concedes very little, if anything, to his opponents, and he is in the fortunate position of believing what he says. Abbott rarely bothers to hide his contempt for Gillard. His lack of regard for her and for the government is genuine.

When Abbott was health minister, Gillard was his opposite number in 2003-06 and the two expressed a good deal of regard for each other. At the very least, they enjoyed mutual respect as political rivals, with probably an element of personal warmth there too.

Clearly, the relationship broke down a couple of years ago. Gillard gives all appearances of having the same disregard for Abbott, but her problem is that she has not had the clear air that he has enjoyed as leader.

She has had to contend with questions about the manner in which she came to the leadership in June 2010 and then more concerns within the electorate about the nature of the minority government she was able to form after the August 2010 election.

At the same time, Gillard has to run the government while trying to form a political offensive against the opposition, the predictable burden of a prime minister. Abbott, on the other hand, has been unencumbered by other responsibilities and has been free to run a purely political campaign against the government without pause.

It has worked spectacularly well for him, partly because of good fortune but also because his personal style suits the modern political and media environment. And he can thank his Coalition colleagues for showing great internal discipline - a discipline that was noticeably absent the previous time the Liberal and National parties found themselves out of government.

This week some Coalition eyebrows were raised by the slight shift towards the ALP in the Newspoll. There were suggestions in the media, and from Labor, that the hardline tactics pursued by Abbott and the opposition manager of business, Christopher Pyne, against the member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, had turned some voters back to Labor. Abbott's subsequent attempt to scamper from the lower house on Wednesday when Thomson sided with the opposition on a procedural vote underscored their worries.

Abbott can afford to see quite a few more polls like that before he needs to start worrying. In the political world, the terminology most often used by politicians who decide to go in hard against their opponents equates with traffic accidents. If an opposition leader knows he will hurt his own standing with an attack, he will say that he accepts that he will lose a few coats of paint in the collision but that the damage to the opponent will be greater.

The Coalition right now is so far in front of the government that Abbott could afford not just to lose more paint, he could go back to the bare metal and then suffer a breakdown in the bodywork before he is in trouble. Bear in mind, a 38 per cent primary vote in 2010 left Labor four seats short of a lower house majority. To be re-elected, it would have to get at least 40 per cent - a long way off Nielsen's 28 per cent or Newspoll's 32.

The role of opposition leader seems to be one Abbott was born to play. As a minister, he was determined and dutiful but rarely inspired or creative. As opposition leader, his determination has defined him. In the two years after its 2007 election defeat, the Coalition got through the trauma of its defeat quickly, burning through two leaders in Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull.

Abbott in late 2009 concluded that Turnbull's approach of accepting the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of Labor's climate change policy led to a political dead end. In triggering a challenge to Turnbull he offered a simple alternative: oppose everything, which was easy for the Coalition to enunciate and easy for the public to understand. After making that initial, clarifying judgment, of concluding that politics had to be simplified to its essence, luck has been with Abbott.

First, he was underestimated by the government and the political media, typecast as bumptious, crude and ineffective. Then, he was able to exploit another of his insights, which is that in the modern media environment, information is disseminated in ways that approximate a hit-and-run. News and views arrive in small bites now, and the easier they are to transmit and present, the more effective they are.

Again, here was a combination of luck and insight helping Abbott on his political mission. In living memory, there has not been a more complicated set of policy issues as those surrounding climate change and a market scheme to reduce carbon emissions. And as the digital revolution upends traditional mass media, there is a diminishing capacity and desire within much of the established media to embrace and explain, or even tolerate, complex concepts.

Whether this has been good training for Abbott as a prime minister can't be known, but he has been, for the most part, a devastatingly effective - if not particularly well-liked - opposition leader.

Shaun Carney is an associate editor.