The remaking of Tony Abbott: a seven-month Liberal project
Illustration: Andrew Dyson
TONY Abbott gave voters a glimpse of a very different prime ministership when he stepped up to the podium at the National Press Club this week - one where the nation's leader performs lifeguard duty at his local surf beach, continues as a volunteer with the CFA, devotes a week each year to working in remote Aboriginal communities and even manages to lead his annual ''pollie pedal'' to raise money for charity.
One intention, according to an email from Abbott to his advisers (including wife Margie) was to communicate to the television audience what those around him already know - that Tony's a ''good bloke''. It was also to present the man accused of misogyny by Julia Gillard as a champion of women's rights - the prime minister who would deliver a ''Holy Grail of the women's movement'' in the form of a ''fair-dinkum'' paid parental leave scheme.
For those unaware of his CV, Abbott revealed that it is more rounded than many voters might assume. He has been a concrete plant manager, a Rhodes scholar, a footy coach, a journalist, a nipper parent and a political adviser before spending seven years in John Howard's cabinet.
''I cherish my time on patrol with the Queenscliff [NSW] surf club and with the local brigade - not just for the community service but because working with people without a political agenda helps to keep politicians grounded in the real world,'' Abbott remarked.
The portrait of Abbott as a man of many (attractive) parts was also painted by Victorian Liberal Helen Kroger when she introduced him to a morning tea at Wheelers Hill earlier in the week. ''We saw Tony out on the weekend, filling sandbags and helping out [with the floods] in Brisbane and, before that, firefighting in New South Wales,'' Kroger told the gathering, describing the Liberal leader as a highly intelligent, straight-talking man of action, with strong family values.
The question that will not be answered until we see the polls in the weeks and months ahead is whether any of this will change public perceptions of the man who has put the Coalition in the box seat to win the September 14 election, but whose disapproval rating in the last Age/Nielsen Poll of 2012 hit a record high of 63 per cent. The likely answer, however, is: not much. As social researcher and Ipsos Australia executive director Rebecca Huntley puts it: ''What we are finding is that people have been unwilling to move on him. The gut feeling about him is the same as people had about [Mark] Latham - that it's hard to imagine him being prime minister.''
This is reflected in most of the quantitative polls, with the December Age/Nielsen poll showing his net rating (approval minus disapproval) has been worse than minus-20 for four straight months, and raising the question of whether he was beginning to drag down the Liberal vote.
Herein lies the significance of Julia Gillard's gamble of setting the election date almost eight months out from polling. There are three strategic arguments for giving away the tactical edge of being able to announce the election five weeks out from polling day - and putting pressure on Abbott to reveal costed policies is the most contentious.
Clearly, Gillard believes Abbott is incapable of making the transition from a brutally effective opposition leader to a credible alternative PM - and she expects this to be confirmed as greater scrutiny is applied. The risk for Labor, of course, is Abbott seizing the opportunity of more exposure to present himself as an attractive alternative.
Certainly, Abbott's attempts to resonate with voters so far have been solely about putting a positive spin on the old negative message about stopping the boats, ending the waste and ditching the carbon and mining taxes. That, of itself, will not be enough.
As he often reminds us, the task of opposition leaders is to provide a powerful critique of the government and an alternative vision capable of capturing the imagination of the undecided and the alienated. Abbott has been spectacularly successful in the former but a failure in the latter - at least until now.
A second argument for Gillard locking in the date is to try to lock in her own leadership, and Abbott as her opponent. This, too, is open to argument. The truth is that Gillard remains one major stuff-up or crisis away from her leadership being under challenge - this is situation normal - and that any change on the Labor side could fan concerns in the Coalition that Abbott is vulnerable, especially if his numbers don't improve.
The third argument is the most persuasive (and, to my mind, justifies what Gillard did): to remove one source of speculation and provide a measure of certainty, especially given that the election was always going to be in late August or early September.
The argument that she has called the longest election campaign in Australian history - ''227 DAY FARCE'', screamed one tabloid headline - is bunkum. All parties have been campaigning since the last election produced a hung parliament, but the real campaign - the time when the electorate beings to take a serious interest - begins when the writs are issued.
Gillard has returned recharged and in charge, and used her Press Club address this week to frame the year under her ''Jobs, Opportunity, Fairness'' banner. Setting the date was all about instilling confidence and giving order to her plan to give Labor a real shot at an unlikely third term.
If she needed reminders of the degree of difficulty, three presented themselves in quick succession: the savage critique of her move by anonymous Labor MPs who see a Kevin Rudd return as Labor's only hope; the laying of fraud charges against former Labor MP Craig Thomson; and the Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings in Sydney that offer a daily reminder of a very bad state Labor government.
So, while Abbott has a serious image problem, it is not a cause for significant angst among Coalition MPs. ''Everyone is pretty calm,'' is how one expressed it. Former Howard chief of staff and now Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos sums it up this way: ''We wouldn't be the chance we are today without Tony Abbott and that's why he deserves a shot at the next election.''
Moreover, in the absence of the policies that will be released in the coming months, a just completed survey of almost 1000 voters by Ipsos has shown that the Coalition is seen as more capable of managing all the issues that voters regard as important. The online survey was conducted between January 25 and 31 and saw health and hospitals nominated as the most important issue, ahead of law and order, the cost of living and immigration.
On health and hospitals, 30 per cent preferred the Coalition to Labor's 23 per cent; on cost of living pressures, the Coalition led 34 to 20; on the economy, 39 to 22; on education, 33 to 25; on immigration, 37 to 16. Even on the environment, the Coalition was preferred by 24 per cent to Labor's 15.
But there was one important qualification: an average of 25 per cent of those sampled replied ''don't know'' when asked which party was better equipped to manage the many issues. This reflects the antipathy towards all sides of politics. As Huntley puts it: ''People don't believe Labor deserves a third term, they don't like Tony Abbott, they don't want minority government - and the Green vote is going to decline.''
All of which points to seven months of drama and uncertainty before the final battle begins.
Michael Gordon is national editor of The Age.