Features | Politics | Oceania

Tony Abbott Poised to Become Australia’s PM

Abbott should dispatch Rudd this weekend, but he’s likely to find the job of governing altogether harder.

Anthony Fensom

Tony Abbott is poised to become Australia’s 27th prime minister after a botched presidential-style election campaign from incumbent Kevin Rudd. Known for his “selfies” photos on social media, the Labor leader has instead suffered from overexposure of a haphazard strategy for the September 7 poll.

Reinstalled in June by the center-left party for his reported campaigning prowess, Rudd’s comeback initially helped Labor reach level terms with Abbott’s conservative Liberal-National Coalition. However, the honeymoon soon ended and the opinion polls progressively worsened for Rudd’s party during the five week official campaign, with the latest predicting around a 10 to 15 seat majority in the Lower House for his opponent, nicknamed the “mad monk”.

“Labor has run an almost chaotic and certainly in some areas an amateurish and uncoordinated campaign,” Griffith University’s Paul Williams told The Diplomat.

“We’ve seen Kevin Rudd make policy announcements on the run, making statements and then backpedalling…Abbott has concentrated on stability while Rudd has tried to defend his record, which in hindsight probably wasn’t a smart thing to do.”

The party that has ruled Australia since December 2007 began its re-election campaign on the back foot, with a notional 72 seats in the 150-seat lower house compared to the Coalition’s 75.

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Rudd launched his campaign amid warnings of the end of the China-led resource boom. But while the recycled leader stressed his previous success in avoiding recession during the global financial crisis, analysts instead have pointed to low business confidence, rising living costs and unemployment along with a swelling federal budget deficit.

Negativity Backfires

After beginning his campaign promising “a new way” with a focus on school funding, job creation and the national broadband network, Rudd quickly threw the switch to negative mode with attacks on Abbott’s alleged “A$70 billion” worth of cuts to jobs, education and hospitals.

Australians had a choice between a “new way for the future…as opposed to the old negative politics and three-word slogans of the past,” he said.

Abbott by contrast adopted the slogan of “Choose real change,” asserting that Australia could not afford “another three years like this six years that it’s just had” of political turmoil.

“Who is more fair dinkum…The people who have been stable and consistent for the last three years or a government which has been wracked by division and dysfunction?” Abbott asked rhetorically.

Yet after adopting his own three-word slogan of “cuts, cuts, cuts” concerning the Coalition’s budget plans, Rudd’s attacks were blunted by his own bureaucrats who issued a public statement denying claims of a “$10 billion black hole” in Coalition savings.

Describing the attack as a “spectacular failure,” Tim Wilson of the free market Institute of Public Affairs told The Diplomat that it marked a low point in the campaign.

“Normally in politics there are degrees of accuracy and inaccuracy in what politicians say, but it’s normally a matter of context and half truths. The government in this campaign has actually prosecuted attacks on the Opposition which they know are blatant lies,” he said, pointing to the “$70 billion black hole” claim.

The failure of Labor’s negative attacks were shown by Rudd’s worsening approval ratings, with former Rudd media adviser Lachlan Harris telling the ABC TV’s Gruen Nation that Abbott had “stolen Rudd’s ‘Captain Positive’ cape that Rudd had in 2007.”

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As former Liberal leader John Hewson remarked during the September 4 broadcast, “Discipline has been the essence of the campaign [for Abbott]…keep the messages simple, stay on message the whole time, and don’t be negative if you don’t have to because you’ve spent three years being overwhelmingly negative and scored a lot of points.”

While both leaders traded blows in public debates, with Abbott famously telling Rudd to “shut up” at one event, neither landed the knockout blow required to sink the other’s campaign.

Gaffes included a Liberal candidate from western Sydney who failed to recall the Coalition’s six-point plan, while Rudd sparked criticism for his “thought bubble” announcements concerning shifting Australian naval forces north and creating a special economic zone for the Northern Territory.

Rudd also reacted angrily to reporting by Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp media, with Sydney’s Daily Telegraph including among its front-page attacks a headline on the first day of the campaign: “Kick this mob out.”

Policy Divide

While the economy traditionally is the major election issue, another seemingly lower-ranking issue came to dominate much of the campaign.

“Strangely, paid parental leave has been the pivotal policy difference,” Griffith University’s Williams said. “Much of the Rudd campaign has been tailored around Australia can’t afford it, it’s unfair and inequitable. It’s unusual in that in other campaigns what might be considered a second tier issue has dominated.”

Abbott’s pledge to spend A$5.5 billion a year on the scheme, funded by a levy on business, has attracted criticism from within his Coalition as well as business groups.

Both major parties have pledged to return the federal budget to surplus within ten years, with the Coalition vowing to scrap the carbon and mining taxes as well as cut company tax (which would be offset by the levy).

Careful to avoid Labor attacks on its fiscal plans, the Coalition delayed announcing its budget policy until September 5, when it announced plans to cut the budget deficit by around A$6 billion a year over three years, helped by a A$4.5 billion reduction in foreign aid.

The measure was attacked by aid groups, while economists also lambasted both sides’ failure to address a growing revenue gap.

"The government might be in deficit for nearly a decade in the scheme of things, as a result of where we stand on the budget," HSBC chief economist Paul Bloxham told ABC News.

Despite media focus on asylum seeker policy, the issue failed to attract much attention during the campaign with Williams describing it as “way down on voters’ radar…this election is clearly about cost of living.”

The Big Picture

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So-called “big picture” issues such as climate change barely registered during the campaign, with voters seemingly more worried about their hip pockets. While both parties pledged to restore defense spending to two percent of GDP, neither side set a timetable for doing so, a fact criticized by the Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf.

“Defense funding has dropped off at the very time when the challenges in the region have been getting bigger,” Medcalf told the Australian Institute of International Affairs at an August 27 meeting in Brisbane.

Arguing that neither party had addressed the region’s worsening security environment, Medcalf warned that Australia was ill prepared for potential regional conflicts, with defense spending at its lowest proportion of GDP since before the Second World War.

Yet despite criticism of Abbott as favoring the “Anglosphere” of the United States and Britain over Asia, the Liberal leader told the Lowy Institute that his first overseas trip as prime minister would be to Indonesia, China, Japan and South Korea.

The IPA’s Wilson said foreign policy had traditionally been a bipartisan issue and there would not be any radical changes under a new government: “You’ll see a more supportive position towards Israel, the United States and the Anglosphere, but it won’t go any further than that.”

Williams said foreign policy would not change greatly under Abbott, except for a slight change of emphasis toward traditional allies, including in Asia.

“It’s pretty obvious that Kevin Rudd valued the Chinese relationship extremely highly and some criticized him for forgetting our older friend, Japan…that’s probably the only nuance of difference,” he said.

With both analysts approached by The Diplomat expecting a comfortable Coalition victory, Abbott’s first task as prime minister will be confronting a widening budget deficit, growing regional and international tensions including Syria, and an electorate that has become accustomed to economic success and expanding government largesse.

While not entirely a poisoned chalice, Abbott will hope his honeymoon lasts longer than the man he is likely to replace as Australia’s leader.