With Tony Abbott and his government trailing miserably in the opinion polls and seemingly rudderless in turning their fortunes around, will they take a leaf out of the history books if all else fails?
Tony Abbott’s poll position is not dire, as was John Howard’s in 2001. In April of that year the Howard government trailed 60/40 in the Nielsen Poll and in September it had turned around to 57/43 in their favour. They went on to easily win the November Federal election.
How did they do it?
David Clune’s outstanding paper Back To The Future? The November 2001 federal election gives us all the answers. What follows is an extract from Clune’s piece . . .
‘By all the laws of politics, in April 2001 the Howard Government was on death row awaiting execution. Implementation of the GST and the inadequacies of the compensation package had alienated core supporters such as retirees and small business. Rural and regional Australia seemed to be in the grip of a populist reaction to globalisation and social change unlike anything seen since the Depression. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party had successfully tapped into this and channelled many traditional supporters away from the Coalition. The ‘battlers’ in key mortgage belt seats, struggling to make ends meet and concerned with the state of essential services such as health and education, seemed ready to desert Howard in droves. The ‘elites’, who had never accepted Howard’s legitimacy in office and were unforgiving of his social conservatism, maintained an unremitting campaign of strident attacks. Key economic indicators looked threatening: the dollar fell below 50 cents to the American dollar for the first time; HIH Insurance collapsed spectacularly.
To add to the Government’s problems, it had a large number of marginal seats that it held very narrowly. A uniform swing of 0.8 per cent would see it swept from office. The State electoral trend was running strongly to Labor as shown by the defeat of the Court Government in Western Australia on 10 February and the ALP’s landslide re-election in Queensland a week later. Then came the Government’s loss of the safe seat of Ryan in a by-election on 17 March occasioned by resignation of former Defence Minister John Moore. Although doubts remained about the Opposition’s credibility and lack of policies, the majority of voters seemed so disillusioned with the Government that they would vote for anyone to oust it.
In May, an internal memo from Liberal President Shane Stone to Howard was leaked. It accused the Government of being ‘out of touch’ with its supporters and public opinion, ‘reactive rather than proactive,’ ‘far behind public sentiment’ and ‘too tricky’ on some issues. Deputy Liberal Leader Peter Costello was said to be ‘the main offender.’ The source of the leak was unclear. However, speculation that it came from the Prime Minister’s office did not help relations between Howard and his Deputy and created a damaging impression of internal disunity.
Faced with what seemed an impossible task, Howard fought back. He spent every spare moment working the marginals. The Government became tighter and more focussed. There was no more loose politics. A campaign to win back the support of disaffected groups commenced in earnest. Changes were made to ease the burden on small business of the unpopular GST Business Activity Statement. A proposal to tax trusts as companies that was deeply unpopular with farmers was scrapped. Indexation of excise on petrol was abandoned in response to much anger about rising fuel prices. Beer drinkers also received some tax relief. First home buyers were given an increased subsidy. The May 2001 Budget was a big spending one. In particular, it delivered a number of significant concessions to older Australians, including tax breaks to self-funded retirees and a $300 one-off payment for pensioners. In June, social security debts owed by more than 500,000 families due to over payment were waived.
That all this was starting to pay off was shown when the Liberal Party narrowly retained the outer-Melbourne seat of Aston at a by-election on 14 July notwithstanding a swing of 3.6 per cent against it. The Coalition was given a significant morale boost by this check to what had seemed like an endless downward spiral in its fortunes.
The ALP was having some problems of its own. The launch in July of one of its key policies — Knowledge Nation — was less than successful. Many commentators attacked the package as incomprehensible verbiage. Howard responded by asking Opposition Leader Kim Beazley to ‘spare us the spaghetti-and-meatball flow charts, tell us what you’re going to do and how you’re going to pay for it.’
Howard also hinted at making income tax relief an election issue to counter Labor’s plans for a GST rollback, for so long its policy centre-piece. Opposition front bencher Bob McMullan responded by saying that tax relief, including rollback, was a secondary issue compared to dealing with the ‘crisis’ in health and education. This allowed Howard to accuse the ALP of failing to have a clear policy direction.
The news on the economy was better. The increased subsidy for first home buyers was a runaway success and was lifting the building industry out of its post GST slump. Interest rates were at a record low. Economic growth appeared to be picking up again. The low dollar was flowing through into improved rural commodity prices.
By the beginning of August, it seemed that the Government had reversed the decline in its fortunes and had rebuilt much of its electoral base. However, the polls showed that it was still not in a winning position. Then, on 27 August the Norwegian freighter Tampa sailed over the horizon, destined to become the best known ship in Australian history since Endeavour. On board were 434 mostly Afghani boat people, rescued when their vessel sank on its way from Indonesia. The Government decided to get tough and refused to allow Tampa to enter Australian waters. When the Captain ignored this and tried to land at Christmas Island, the Defence Force took control of the vessel. The ensuing impasse was resolved when Nauru agreed to accept most of the asylum seekers pending assessment of their claims for refugee status by the United Nations. A further group went to New Zealand. After initially taking a bipartisan approach, Labor combined with the Australian Democrats in the Senate on 29 August to defeat emergency legislation to confirm the Government’s powers to remove Tampa from Australian waters. Subsequently, the Opposition changed its position a gain and supported a package of seven bills to validate the Government’s actions and increase its powers in regard to asylum seekers which was passed on 26 September. Bythis time it was clear that the Government’s stand had overwhelming support in the community. An A.C. Nielsen poll published on 4 September showed 77 per cent agreed with the Government’s decision to refuse to allow Tampa to enter Australian waters.
On 11 September came the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon followed by the war on terrorism. The resulting climate of widespread uncertainty combined with the immigration issue to give Howard and the Government a massive boost in the polls … ‘
So many of the domestic issues that saw the electorate ready to desert Howard are similar to those tormenting Abbott today. In particular, the so-called ‘battlers’ who are being battered from pillar to post. There are much more, of course, such as an opposition deemed weak, but I will leave that up to you to ponder over the similarities.
The question is, might we see Tony Abbott use Howard’s tactics as a blueprint for electoral success in 2016? I think we will, and as much of it as possible.
However, there is one thing missing: the Tampa. Tony Abbott will no doubt grasp at anything to have his own Tampa moment. There is nothing surer.
Oh, and there is one more thing missing . . . 9/11.