Abbott’s Race Against Time

As the damning opinion polls continue to mount, many commentators are already writing the Prime Minister’s political obituary, but if history is anything to go by, the potential for the Leader of the Opposition to face a political execution of his own, should not be discounted.

This claim may seem fanciful when one considers the dominance of the party Mr Abbott leads in the opinion polls, but should he survive as Opposition Leader to the next election, he will be the exception to opposition politics in Australia, rather than the rule.

In truth, oppositions in poll winning positions have form when it comes to changing leaders in order to shore up their election prospects. There is only so long an opposition will tolerate an unpopular leader, particularly when the ultimate prize is so tantalisingly close.

For instance, in March 1975 the Whitlam government was on the nose. The opinion polls showed the Liberal/National opposition were well positioned to win the next election but MPs moved against their leader, Bill Snedden on the basis that he was failing to inspire the electorate. Enter Malcolm Fraser. The rest is history.

Years later as prime minister, Fraser was wrong-footed when in 1983 Labor adopted the same strategy, dumping Bill Hayden in favour of Bob Hawke on the eve of an election. The leadership change occurred despite Labor’s sustained dominance in the polls and Hayden famously claimed “a drover’s dog could lead the Labor Party to victory.”

Fast forward to more recent times and Kim Beazley was replaced by Kevin Rudd just 12 months out from the 2007 election, despite the fact that Beazley had succeeded in leading his party back from the brink to a poll-winning position after a disastrous showing in 2004.

The scenario confronting the Liberals is not dissimilar. While it is true that few oppositions have enjoyed the kind of ascendancy the Coalition is now enjoying in the polls, few opposition leaders have been as disliked. Gillard may be exceptionally unpopular but so too is her Liberal rival. Indeed, the two have been locked in an unpopularity contest for more than a year.

At the 2010 election many voters disenchanted with Labor still couldn’t bring themselves to give Abbott their vote. Since then, Abbott has succeeded in neutralising the Prime Minister’s popularity but he has failed to boost his own stocks in the process. It’s ironic that Abbott’s combative style may have succeeded in tearing down Rudd and Gillard, but it may also, ultimately disqualify him from the prime ministership if it continues to repel the electorate.

Of course there are examples of opposition leaders who have confounded the polls and gone on to triumph on election day. But the used-by date of our political leaders is becoming shorter and shorter these days and fortnightly polls and the 24/7 news cycle see the blowtorch applied to our leaders like never before. For instance, in its 11 most recent years in opposition the ALP had five leadership changes (Beazley, Crean, Latham, Beazley, Rudd) and the Liberals have had three since returning to opposition in 2007 (Nelson, Turnbull and now Abbott).

In the age of the opinion poll, leaders know they are only a Newspoll (or two) away from political assassination. Perhaps this explains Abbott’s ongoing campaign for an early election – he appreciates that he may be running out of time to win over the Australian people.

While Abbott may appear unassailable at the moment, history does have a habit of repeating itself – only this time it may be Malcolm Turnbull, rather than a ‘drover’s dog,’ that starts biting at the Opposition Leader’s heels.

This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 6th of August 2012. 

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