Tony Abbott has an image problem. Every poll in the country confirms this. Despite the ascendancy of the party he leads and the persistent unpopularity of Prime Minister Gillard, Abbott is not enjoying a honeymoon with voters.
For many, Gillard and Abbott represent the ultimate Sophie’s Choice.
One possible explanation for Abbott’s unpopularity could be the perception that he is overtly negative. Since winning the leadership of the Liberal Party Abbott has mounted a full-frontal assault on the Government. Armed with something akin to a political sledge hammer, he has shattered any sense of political consensus in Australia – tearing down Kevin Rudd and seriously (maybe even mortally) wounding Julia Gillard’s prime ministership. While on the face of it this strategy has been political dynamite for the Coalition, Abbott himself has not emerged unscathed. In the minds of many voters he is defined more by what he won’t stand for, than what he will (“stop the boats, stop the taxes, stop the waste” etc).
There is however an unlikely issue on the horizon that provides an opportunity to rehabilitate the Abbott image – gay marriage. Abbott’s views on the issue are well known. He doesn’t support it, but in unilaterally ruling that his party won’t either, he is making a rod for his own back.
Presumably Abbott thinks that by maintaining a hard-line position on the issue he is keeping maximum pressure on Labor as it struggles to deal with its Prime Minister’s opposition to its own policy platform. Give ’em enough rope certainly seems to be working for him, but it also reinforces the doubts many Australians already have about their alternative prime minister. Will he use the prime ministership to assert his conservative social views over the electorate, will he say no to every idea unless it’s his own?
The issue provides Abbott with the rare opportunity to recast himself as a political healer breaking an impasse on an issue around which there is significant community concern. He can reiterate his personal opposition to the idea, yet still allow his colleagues the right to vote as they wish. By denying his colleagues a vote and dooming any reform proposal to failure, Abbott ensures that the issue will not go away; an unwanted distraction for him should he ever become prime minister.
By allowing a conscience vote Abbott can also send a signal to all those who worry about the implications of an Abbott prime ministership for a range of social issues – women’s reproductive rights and gay rights to name a few; “I hold my views, but I won’t force them onto you”. It’s an assurance many in the community desperately want. The decision of the Catholic Church to mobilise its members in resistance to gay marriage will heighten the concerns of many who remember devout-Catholic Abbott evoking his religious convictions in defence of constraining women’s reproductive rights when he was health minister.
There is even the potential for electoral dividends should some voters to the left of the political spectrum think more favourably of him when they come to allocate their preferences at the next election (eg: 74 per cent of Labor voters and 81 per cent of Green voters back the reform,according to Galaxy.
In agreeing to a conscience vote, Abbott can seek guidance from another socially conservative Liberal leader, John Howard. Despite having his own strongly held views, Howard regularly used the conscience vote as a device to defuse contentious social issues (including RU486 and stem cell research)and provide the community with an opportunity to have its voice heard.
If the polls are to be believed, there is one thing standing between the Liberals and victory at the next election and that is Tony Abbott. If he does not start to change tack, he may find change forced upon him in the form of new leadership.
This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 9th of April 2012.