The Coalition’s Impressionist Platform Paints The Wrong Picture

The Queensland state election was only held in March. But it feels like such a long time ago. Nobody would feel the distance between then and now more keenly than Tony Abbott.

After Campbell Newman’s extraordinary landslide, Abbott and the federal Coalition were being told by polls and commentators that they, too, were looking at a record win. Julia Gillard would lose Queensland-style.

It made sense. Labor was crippled by leadership questions, multiple scandals, and the imminent introduction of the carbon tax. The polls even suggested the Coalition could win the Senate. If not, then a quick, comfortable double dissolution would sort that out.

Eight months later, the polls are back roughly where they were at the last election – the one the Coalition didn’t win.

Tony Abbott is increasingly unpopular. Colleagues are telling the press he should cut down media appearances. His disapproval rating is the highest of any opposition leader since Alexander Downer.

Is this comparison unfair? Of course. Abbott has had Labor on the back foot almost continuously since 2009. Under Malcolm Turnbull, the Coalition would have been on the receiving end of a Queensland-style wipeout. But it’s not true to say Abbott is the most effective opposition leader in history. The only mark of success in opposition is becoming the government. And Tony Abbott is going to have to change tack if the Coalition wants to remain competitive at the next election.

Sure, if an election were held today, the opposition might win it. But an election is probably a year away. Victory requires more than optimism. Ask Mitt Romney. The Coalition has long believed it can win government on an impressionist platform: a few bold, strong strokes (stop the boats, axe the tax, pay back the debt) that, if voters step back and squint, offer a picture of what an Abbott government might look like. Those strokes are looking worn and colourless.

Asylum seeker policy has been so fudged that it’s not clear which party is promising to be toughest any more. More boats are arriving than ever. But in retrospect Julia Gillard irretrievably confused the whole issue with the Malaysia solution back in 2011.

The carbon tax no longer resonates as it once did. It will do nothing to halt climate change. It is designed to get more costly every year. But people are already forgetting about it. Voters tend to tolerate policies – even intensely hated ones – once they’ve been introduced. It still should be repealed, but it’s hard to see the Coalitionwinning on that alone.

And certainly, it seems unlikely the government will soon bring the budget into surplus. But few people care about the deficit, per se, they care about a government being so reckless with the public purse that it goes into deficit. So, until the opposition offers an alternative plan, the government just has to pretend it is sweating blood to fix the problem.

Yes, offer an alternative plan. Impressionism isn’t working.

One alternative would be to roll out a series of clear, detailed, and memorable policies that will stand alone long after Julia Gillard has left the stage. Nothing makes an opposition look more like a potential government than policy debate. Drafting policy is risky without the bureaucracy backing you up. It is a necessary risk. Or the Coalition could embrace abstraction, and present a fresh, philosophically driven vision of government. Even today, politics is still about ideas.

Abbott is better placed than most politicians for this latter approach. His 2009 book Battlelines is a manifesto of a modern, activist, big-government conservative philosophy.

Joe Hockey offered a different direction in his ”End of the Age of Entitlement” speech in April – a wholesale rethink of how government relates to its taxpayers.

But Abbott steers clear of the philosophy of Battlelines. And nobody grasped Hockey’s nettle. This lack of story about what would drive an Abbott government is why Coalition supporters are wrong to blame character assassination for their troubles. The polls were heading down long before Julia Gillard made the misogyny speech.

Every government says the opposition is being negative. Negativity is only a problem if it looks opportunistic. A cohesive philosophical vision is a shield against such charges.

And claims that Abbott is unpopular because he is too effective a critic of the government … well, that’s like saying in a job interview that your biggest weakness is you care too much about your work.

Personal unpopularity is not a barrier to success. Australians don’t want to be seduced by their politicians. We are not romantic about the prime ministership. Quirks are appealing. Gaffes are easy to forgive.

But right now, the Coalition has to start looking like a government, not a pressure group.