Spotlight on Labor failings misses what Abbott has got right

Prime Minister Julia Gillard's political pilgrimage to western Sydney once again focuses the debate on Labor's problems. Whether they be leadership or policy or strategy. What's missing from much media analysis is an assessment of what Tony Abbott and the Coalition may be doing to win over swinging voters in marginal seats in western Sydney and elsewhere.

It was much the same when Barry O'Farrell led the Coalition to victory in NSW two years ago in what, traditionally, has been a Labor-voting state. There was much focus on Labor's leadership changes from Morris Iemma to Nathan Rees and on to Kristina Keneally, along with analysis of the impact of damage to the ALP's brand name due to the machinations associated with its Sussex Street headquarters.

In March 2011, there was a tendency to overlook O'Farrell's strong performance as opposition leader in the Coalition's electoral victory. He had managed to unify the parliamentary Liberal Party and to establish good relations between the Liberals and the Nationals. Moreover, he was respected in western Sydney, the Illawarra and Hunter Valley - which explains the Coalition's strong vote outside of its traditional safe seats.

The obsession with Labor's apparent failure overlooks the Coalition's apparent success. This distorts reality. Many commentators simply do not understand how the Australian people could possibly elect to office a party headed by Abbott, a man whom they regard as an out-of-touch social conservative.

In his controversial Quarterly Essay in September, titled ''Political Animal'', David Marr did not completely write off Abbott's chances of winning the coming election. But he did begin his piece with the comment: "Australia doesn't want Tony Abbott; we never have." Some months later, when responding to comments on the essay, Marr wrote: "The numbers are going the wrong way for Abbott."

Marr's analysis overlooks Abbott's 2010 success in forcing a first-term government to minority status. There is almost unanimity in opinion polls that the Abbott-led Coalition is likely to prevail in the election. Of course, anything could happen in six months' time. Yet, the evidence indicates it is mere hyperbole to suggest that all Australians do not want Abbott to be prime minister. Moreover, the numbers are heading in Abbott's direction.

Hostility to Abbott is partly personal, partly political and based among inner-city intelligentsia in Sydney and Melbourne, quite a few of whom are Greens voters. It finds strongest expression at the ABC - which still does not have one conservative presenter, producer or editor on any of its prime products - and in the publications of Black Inc.

The Melbourne-based property developer Morry Schwartz's publishing company produces such titles as The Monthly and Quarterly Essay which obsessively pump out material in print and online critical of the contemporary Liberal Party. Its publications include Tony Speaks! The Wisdom of The Abbott … (Black Inc, 2012) which was compiled by Russell Marks.

The reference to "the Abbott" is yet another anti-Catholic sectarian attack on the Liberal Party leader's religion. In fact, Abbott is not the fundamentalist Catholic his critics believe him to be. In any event, some Abbott comments which strike Marks and Schwartz as barking mad make sense to many electors, irrespective of their location. Take this one: "I don't much like pornography; I've never purchased it myself." Many Australians - Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and atheist alike - would share this position, even if it rates a sneer in the Black Inc office in fashionable inner-city Collingwood.

During her speech at the University of Western Sydney on Sunday, the Prime Minister declared that she "didn't grow up" on the north shore. Gillard's tactic is understandable since she is trying to run a class-war line in order to encourage drifting Labor voters back into the fold. The fact is Abbott lives a middle-class life in a house which is no grander - and perhaps less so - than numerous homes in western Sydney. What's more, Bert Evatt, who was a much beloved Labor figure in the 1940s and 1950s, lived outside his electorate in a grand house in fashionable Mosman.

It's true that Abbott is not a particularly popular figure. But that does not matter much. Only three popular leaders have led their parties to government in Australia, namely Joseph Lyons in 1931 and the social democrats Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd in 1983 and 2007 respectively. Robert Menzies and John Howard, Australia's electorally most successful prime ministers, were never hugely popular.

The evidence suggests that - like such contemporary Liberal leaders as O'Farrell, Queensland's Campbell Newman and Western Australia's Colin Barnett - Abbott has a certain appeal in suburban and regional Australia. The real story about Gillard's political tango in western Sydney turns on what made her sojourn necessary.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.

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