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