Tony Abbott: The politics of 'No'

When Tony Abbott used to clamber into the boxing ring during his student days at Oxford, he would deploy a visualisation technique intended to bring maximum aggression to the fore: he imagined that he was fighting the former Labor Prime Minister, Bob Hawke.

Tony Abbot in a coal mine. Photo: June 2011
Mr Tough Guy: Tony Abbott is always looking for a political opening

Of all the things I have read about the Liberal opposition leader, none offers quite such a revealing insight into his political character.

This is a man who clearly relishes a bruising encounter; a devout partisan who rarely misses an opportunity to pummel his Labor opponents, whether real or imagined; a man, above all, who views politics as conflict.

Over the past 18 months, Tony Abbott has been the surprise package of federal politics.

Written off initially by many as a kind of anti-Moses - someone who would lead the Liberals into the political wilderness rather than away from it - he actually took his party to the brink of victory in last year's federal election.

'Tear-down Tony'

In its inconclusive aftermath, he even took to calling himself the prime minister-in-waiting, which seemed a little presumptuous then and even more so now.

Julia Gillard. Photo: June 2011
Julia Gillard has accepted Mr Abbott's challenge by simply saying: "Game on."

Since then, he has shifted from presenting himself as an alternative prime minister, and been in full leader of the opposition mode.

Some are calling him "Tear-down Tony", because of his rejectionism and obstructionism.

Every day, he is looking for a political opening, whether performing for the cameras in the kind of fluorescent-orange safety jackets that you normally tend to see during election campaigns, or heading off to Nauru - the site of one of the detention centres using by the Howard government as part of its "Pacific Solution" - to talk tough on asylum seekers.

Recently, he even used a welcome speech for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key to lambaste the government's plans for a carbon tax - a move which seemed to breach normal diplomatic protocols.

Dead heat

The Labor jibe is that Abbott is "all opposition and no leader".

The thing is, his tactics have worked - up to a point. The Liberals are leading Labor in the polls, and Julia Gillard's standing is at an all-time low.

Doubtless the prime minister is the author of many of her own misfortunes, but Mr Abbott has helped expose many of her deficiencies.

"Game on," she said, sotto voce, when he shook her hand in the well of the House of Representatives on the day that she became prime minister.

At present, however, Tony Abbott is winning the daily and weekly battle for half-decent poll numbers - which is essentially what politics here has been reduced to.

But Mr Abbott's success as a leader of the opposition has not answered the question raised when he ousted Malcolm Turnbull in 2010: does he come across as a plausible prime minister?

Though he prevented Ms Gillard from winning an outright victory at last year's election, he fell short of gaining a majority himself.

Even though he has dented the prime minister's popularity, he has essentially brought her down to his own low approval rating.

In a recent poll, they both scored 46% - a kind of dead heat for second place. For just as voters regularly tell pollsters they prefer Kevin Rudd over Julia Gillard, the same is true of Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott.

'Political pygmies'

All this suggests that Mr Abbott is struggling to move beyond the politics of "No" and the politics of "Stop".

His four-point manifesto at the last election was largely bereft of vision: to end wasteful spending, to pay back Labor's debt, to stop Labor's new taxes and to stop the boats.

One "end" and two "stops".

No wonder Peter Hartcher of the Sydney Morning Herald has noted that Mr Abbott "offers little more than the negation of [Gillard]".

To these criticisms has been added the charge that Mr Abbott is relying on crude populism to propel him to power.

Channel Nine's political editor Laurie Oakes, who has called both Mr Abbott and Ms Gillard "political pygmies", wrote this over the weekend: "During the week, Tony Abbott lavished praise on a company investing AU $50m [£36m] in a recycling plant 'that will convert garbage into power'. It was not a bad description of what the Opposition Leader himself is up to."

Here there is an irony, for Mr Abbott is one of the few Australians politicians to think deeply enough about his political beliefs to publish them in book form - although, tellingly, his credo was entitled Battlelines.

Similarly, there are not many politicians here who spend a week each year in an Aboriginal community in an attempt to get a better handle on the problems of indigenous Australia.

So a question: can Tony Abbott "stop" and "no" his way to the Lodge?