Future may look a lot like the past
Former Prime Minister John Howard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in the Party Room at Parliament House. Many of Mr Howard's former ministers will be ready to resume their roles should the Coalition regain power with Mr Abbott at the helm. Photo: Andrew Meares
The opposition remains the government in waiting despite the recent resurgence of the Gillard government. Tony Abbott and his team have been waiting impatiently for some time. Their aggressive demeanour during this time has attracted many critics and has not been attractive. But their return to office after two terms is still the most likely outcome in 2013.
Should they return to office it will, in many ways, be a return of the more junior half of the Howard government. Howard himself remains a factor in public life and Abbott is a sworn Howard loyalist. Six years is not quite long enough for a turnover of personnel in a political party. An Abbott government will therefore be much more experienced than the initial Rudd government, which had just a handful with previous ministerial experience.
The key figures such as deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Robb, Kevin Andrews, Christopher Pyne and Nationals leader Warren Truss were Howard ministers or parliamentary secretaries. Few of the class of 2007 have rocketed to the top. Most of them need one more term and a few more retirements to make their mark.
There will be some new faces. Scott Morrison, shadow minister for immigration, is the most prominent. Other recent arrivals, such as Senator Arthur Sinodinos, will fill middle-ranking positions in the ministry. The wild card, Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce, will do likewise.
An Abbott government will also be largely male, completing a swing of the pendulum back to male political leaders across Australia. The gender look will be quite different from the Gillard ministry. Some of them, like Andrews and Truss, will also be drained from more than 20 years of parliamentary service. Howard will have to be their model for longevity and energy. Abbott himself will also be experienced, having entered Parliament in 1994 when Paul Keating was prime minister. Should he make the top job he will be scrutinised more than most new PMs. It is not just his personal unpopularity. He must take his share of responsibility for the generally low ebb that Australian politics has reached in public esteem.
Abbott will be surrounded by his state Coalition colleagues who are now running the big state governments: Colin Barnett, Ted Baillieu, Barry O'Farrell and Campbell Newman. They will provide him with initial support and will dampen any state Labor voice in the short term.
The state Labor oppositions, with the exception of Victoria, have been too slow in bouncing back. But the Coalition state governments may also be unreliable, self-interested allies and at worst a millstone around Abbott's neck when their policies, such as budget cuts, are unpopular and their behaviour erratic. There are already enough such examples to disturb Abbott.
The Abbott team has been developing policies under the guidance of Robb and Andrews but even in areas such as social services, where Andrews himself is responsible, the detail remains vague for non-government service agencies trying to get a handle on the future. The new state governments, especially in Queensland, are viewed as an unhappy prelude to what to expect from an Abbott government.
A new Abbott government will have the advantage of the deep disillusionment among many social movements with the Labor government. The most obvious one is the asylum seeker and refugee rights movement but the disillusionment is shared by many others in the social justice, Indigenous, environment and sexuality movements. Those that are not totally disillusioned may be disengaged from Labor and unenthusiastic for a fight with the Coalition. The same feeling helped Howard win in 1996.
Still, Abbott is not over the line yet. What could go wrong for him and what stance should he adopt in the coming months?
Labor is still surprisingly competitive and remains a chance to retain government. The new tightening in the polls will show us how the Coalition operates under pressure. Balancing his own budget will be Abbott's most difficult task. Labor has enough problems itself in this regard but in an election year the Coalition will be under renewed pressure to answer the question: ''What exactly will you do?''
Over the past 12 months Abbott has paid lip service to the criticism that he has been too negative in his interpretation of the role of opposition leader but the last week of Parliament suggests he has not really changed his focus from attacking the government.
Abbott will fear any further progress in Labor's big initiatives. These include the National Broadband Network.
He will also have to decide what to give Gillard Labor credit for. Howard, Abbott's political mentor, took a shrewd approach to beating Keating in 1996.
Even when it looked like he was going to win easily he took some issues such as Medicare and the GST off the table by promising either to keep them or, in the case of the GST, not to introduce them. Fair Work legislation and industrial relations generally is the parallel this time.
Then there is the uncertainty of the child abuse royal commission. Given his Catholic persona and his socially conservative attachment to traditional institutions, this will test Abbott. The political dangers for him in this commission are clear but the political opportunities have received less attention. Abbott has a big opportunity to publicly clarify his thinking on the vexed question for him of church-state relations.
This commission will be a real test of mettle for the Catholic-dominated Coalition front bench. They will do their party, their church and their country a great service if they rise to the occasion in opposition even before their likely elevation to government.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.