As Labor possibly heads for opposition, who might lead?
Illustration: John Shakespeare
Tony Abbott has been a terrible Opposition Leader, if you believe the government.
A wrecker. A thug. A misogynist and would-be destroyer of Whyalla. He frightens pensioners and horrifies infants. He exercises too much and doesn't read enough. No one can prove he doesn't kick puppies.
There is no denying Abbott's personal brand is what you might politely style ''robust''. But this narrative rather ignores the polls. Yes, Abbott's personal approval ratings are disastrous (voter disapproval of Abbott sits at 63 per cent, according to the last Nielsen poll of 2012), but the attitude of most Coalition MPs is a resounding ''So what?''
Despite some improvement in the government's position, the two-party preferred vote sits stubbornly at 52-48 the Coalition's way, according to Nielsen, and 54-46 according to Newspoll.
So if the job of an opposition leader is to deliver his party an election-winning lead (and many would argue it should be much more than that), Abbott's doing it pretty well.
If the polls don't improve, those in government who are so critical of Abbott in opposition will have a chance to walk in his shoes before the year is out.
They will be able to show us how it's done. We can expect a positive agenda with no parliamentary tricks. Proper policies, fully costed, will be aired years before the next election, and Whyalla need not fear for its existence (although it may still grow tremorous at the Trade Minister, Craig Emerson's, vocal cords).
This is all pure speculation, of course. Everyone within the party will be focused on the gruelling election year. For MPs who stand to lose their seats, the priority is survival.
But the ambitious and the strategic will surely be pondering the post-election landscape and their own position in it.
The names consistently thrown up as leadership contenders - the Workplace Relations Minister, Bill Shorten, the Climate Change Minister, Greg Combet, and the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen - must be having the occasional ''what if?'' moment as they doze in their easy-chairs over summer (although naturally such a thought would rise to mind entirely unbidden).
Shorten has a reputation for ambition. Every time he rises to answer a question relating to his portfolio in question time, he cops impertinent heckling about ''job applications'', and opposition wits shout out to Kevin Rudd to beware (a reference to Shorten's involvement in the coup against the former PM).
Of all the frontbench contenders, he has arguably the highest profile and has communicated well the government's changes to superannuation. He was head of the Australian Workers Union and came to national attention during the Beaconsfield mine collapse in 2006.
When choosing a leader, recognisability is important. But Shorten's two great moments in the media spotlight this year have been less than glorious.
First there was his interview with Sky News's David Speers in April when he declared his fidelity to the Prime Minister's position on sexual harassment, even as he admitted he had no idea what that position was.
''I haven't seen what she said but let me say I support what it is that she said,'' he told a baffled Speers.
Second, Shorten was involved in the Melbourne pie shop incident. (A favourite from my political year.)
Shorten stormed out on a confused pie vendor, Annie Wong, after (he thought) she told him that, were he to heat his pie in the microwave, it would be ''soft, like Julia Gillard''. Having his leader likened to soggy pastry was more than he could stomach - Shorten flounced out and CCTV footage appears to show he shot a few choice words at Wong mid-flounce.
In fact Wong warned Shorten the pie would be soft if microwaved (she was doing him a solid - nobody wants a soft pie). She then full-stopped that sentence and started a new one: ''I like Julia Gillard''.
To be fair, it was a bit of a non-sequitur and Shorten was quick to apologise, which is refreshing in a political world where ''If I offended anyone, I am sorry'' increasingly passes for remorse.
But Shorten is far from universally popular within caucus, and if Gillard loses the election he will pay for having backed her into the top job so solidly with the factional support he controls.
Combet is an altogether more serious person, an earnest character less likely to throw a pie-related tantrum. Highly intelligent with a firm grasp of the diabolically complex detail of emissions trading, he guided the carbon pricing legislation through the House and was preternaturally calm in the face of entrenched and at times vitriolic opposition to the tax.
He is well liked, but as a member of the Left might not have enough factional support.
The public perhaps doesn't see it, but Combet is a brilliant parliamentary performer, too. He delivered some smashingly sarcastic orations in the latter half of the year mocking the Coalition's doomsaying over the carbon tax, culminating in his Melbourne Cup-themed tirade, where he speculated about who might replace Abbott as Opposition Leader.
Malcolm Turnbull was a ''classy thoroughbred'', Joe Hockey was ''hungry for a win but not up for group 1 racing'', etc. It even had the Coalition families spokesman, Kevin Andrews - not a man with a reputation for mirth - laughing.
Bowen is well respected for his economics brain, but the dreadful nature of the 2012 asylum seeker debate has perhaps damaged public perceptions of him.
The final contender, of course, is Kevin Rudd. He will retain his seat in 2013 - he is sitting on a margin of 8.5 per cent. He is only 55, independently wealthy and would be less likely to get a diplomatic gig if the Coalition were in government.
Many of the Labor frontbenchers who publicly hated on him in 2012 would no longer be around, and his popularity among voters seems un-diminished, although it's questionable he would want to lead a party that has already rejected him twice.
It might be none of these contenders, or it might be all of them. As the Chinese proverb says: ''When the tree falls, the monkeys scatter.'' I'm not sure if that is one of Kevin's favourites.
Peter Hartcher is on leave. Jacqueline Maley is parliamentary sketch writer.