So, we have a contest now. At least, that’s what the latest Newspoll suggests. The Gillard Government has closed the gap on the Coalition in the two-party preferred stakes. It’s neck and neck, apparently.
Well, it’s not really... Not yet, anyway. Yes, Labor had made significant progress in recent weeks, but there is a long way to go. All of the other major opinion polls suggest the party would still lose heavily at the next Federal election.
Even if the latest Newspoll was “rogue”, there’s no denying that Labor now has hope.
The Government’s numbers have improved for several reasons: the sky didn’t fall in after the carbon tax was introduced; billions of dollars have been splashed out in increased family payments and tax breaks for some; billions more (which so far haven’t been publicly accounted for) have been promised in health, education and for a disability insurance scheme; and the Prime Minister’s father died. As heartless as that last point might sound, it no doubt resulted in something of a sympathy vote from the public during the last polling period.
But that’s only half the story.
The Coalition and Tony Abbott’s personal numbers have also worsened over that same period. And that is what would be causing the Opposition most concern.
As things stand now, the Opposition Leader is as unpopular as they come. Despite his best efforts (charity work, volunteering, etc), he has a major image problem. Having been a public figure for so long, Mr Abbott will find it near impossible to change the public’s perception of him. Most people either like him, or hate him. He won’t be getting any favours from Labor, which has embarked on a vicious campaign of character assassination (which I suspect the pubic will ultimately tire of).
In addition to personality, there’s the issue of personnel. The sacking of Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi from his position as a Shadow Parliamentary Secretary is the latest example of Mr Abbott’s team letting him down. The “freelancing” of Barnaby Joyce over foreign land ownership is another. The Opposition Leader sent a warning to his team this week to pull in to line. If they don’t, it will ensure public pressure and media scrutiny is focussed on the Coalition – which is exactly what Mr Abbott wants to avoid.
Finally, Tony Abbott has a policy problem. The anti-carbon tax campaign has worn thin (although it may regain some traction once household power bills start arriving in letterboxes), and the Government has bought itself some time on asylum seekers by re-introducing offshore processing. The public will want to know what else he has got to offer, and until he responds, Labor gets to fill in the blanks.
Mr Abbott’s opponents have been given plenty of ammunition in the past week after conservative State Premiers in Queensland and New South Wales slashed thousands of public sector jobs. “Campbell Newman’s budget razor is Tony Abbott’s curtain raiser,” the Prime Minister cried at the Queensland Labor conference last weekend. Sure, the Federal Government is axing public servants too, but the Opposition is allowing itself to be framed as the bad guy.
The Opposition believes this strategy will only work in the short-term for Labor. It says that eventually the Government will be held to account for its unfunded promises and that will cause pain, angst and frustration in certain quarters. The promised Budget surplus promises to cause headaches and Labor’s own public sector axe will be exposed. Sympathy for the Prime Minister will fade.
All of those things will probably happen, and once again the Coalition’s opinion poll lead will be restored. But as highlighted above, Tony Abbott does have real problems in the areas of personality, personnel and policy. Pressure does strange things to people. The Opposition is still in front, but far from being ‘game over’... It’s ‘game on’.