February 2, 2014 1:28 pm

Tony Abbott under fire as Australia election triumph becomes distant memory

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Tony Abbott, Australian prime minister©Getty

Tony Abbott

Clutching blue umbrellas to shield themselves from the Australian sun, canvassers are working through a heatwave to try to deliver Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition government a boost in a by-election next week.

“We’re aiming to blow apart 100 years of election statistics by winning this poll,” says Alan Harrison, who notes no government has won an opposition seat in a by-election since the 1920s.

He is one of hundreds of volunteers working for Bill Glasson, an ophthalmologist turned Liberal-National politician, who is standing in the February 8 poll in a middle-class constituency in Brisbane.

The contest for the Griffith seat, which was held previously by Kevin Rudd, former Labor prime minister, is the first electoral test for Mr Abbott’s government since it swept to power in September. Since then, its honeymoon period has been shortlived; indeed, it may never have happened at all.

A loss in Griffith would not affect the balance of power in parliament but would damage morale in the Liberal-National coalition, which is losing support fast before March’s state elections in Tasmania and South Australia.

Opinion polls show the opposition Labor party surged ahead of the government in November, just two months after the federal election. A December Newspoll found Mr Abbott’s personal popularity falling, with 40 per cent satisfied with the way he is doing his job and 45 per cent dissatisfied.

“The Abbott government has fallen behind the opposition faster than any other government in 40 years of polling,” says John Stirton, research director at Nielsen. “Abbott is not enjoying a honeymoon.” Commentators are thus already saying that the electorate voted not so much for the Liberals as against Labor.

Mr Abbott has got off to a bad start as prime minister thanks to a combination of mistakes, bad luck and a failure to make it clear what his government stands for. For example, during the national election campaign he pledged to retain the “Gonski reform programme”, a root-and-branch reform of education policy adopted by Labor. On taking office the coalition appeared to backtrack on the policy, which could cost up to A$5bn extra a year. Under pressure, Mr Abbott performed a second U-turn and backed the reforms.

From the archive: FT Video

Tony Abbott expected to win Australian election

September 2013: After an ill-tempered campaign, the Liberal-National Party coalition is expected to win in the Australian election, bringing an end to six years of Labor Party rule.

The coalition has flirted with protectionism by blocking the US group Archer Daniels Midland’s proposed takeover of GrainCorp, a local agricultural business. Yet critics accuse it of being a slave to free marketeers by failing to support General Motors’ Holden unit, which is closing one of the last remaining car plants in Australia.

“People aren’t sure about this government; they don’t think it is the same government they elected,” says Terri Butler, the Labor party candidate in Griffith. “All they see is a series of backflips.”

Barely a month into the job, Mr Abbott faced a diplomatic crisis with Indonesia following revelations that Australia’s spy agency had bugged President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s phone. The espionage took place under the former Labor government but Mr Abbott’s clumsy handing of the affair prompted critics to highlight his inexperience of foreign affairs.

The government’s hardline stance on turning back asylum seekers on boats attempting to reach Australia has inflamed tensions further, as has Mr Abbott’s lack of diplomatic nous. When asked about accidental incursions by Australia’s navy into Indonesian waters, which had angered Jakarta, he told journalists even “Test cricketers occasionally drop catches, great footballers occasionally miss tackles”.

Even though he used to be a journalist, Mr Abbott’s relations with the media have never been cosy. But they have sunk to new lows with reporters complaining of a new culture of excessive secrecy. Last week the combative prime minister shot back, accusing the national broadcaster ABC of lacking “affection for the home team”.

Among the trickle of people arriving at polling stations in Griffith for early voting, which begin on February 21, a few men praised Mr Abbott’s tough persona.

“He [Abbott] is more of a man and less of a politician,” said William Gallimore, who added he voted for Mr Glasson.

Women seem less taken with Mr Abbott, whose vicious attacks on former Labor leader Julia Gillard earned him international notoriety. “Women don’t seem to like his aggressive leadership style,” says Ian McAllister, professor of politics at Australian National University. “A gender divide has opened up in polling since Mr Abbott become Liberal leader.”

The weakening economy, due to the end of a mining investment boom, and future budget cuts leave Mr Abbott with the tricky task of getting his government back on track before federal elections that must be held by January 2017.

Bill Shorten, Labor party leader, has goaded the prime minister, predicting he will be a “oncer in the lodge”. Such an outcome would be highly unusual in Australian politics, where most elected prime ministers win two terms.

The early poll lead for Labor probably flatters a party still wounded from infighting. Even in Griffith, where Mr Rudd was a very popular MP, memories of Labor’s civil wars in their last chaotic years in power have not dimmed.

“Labor treated their followers like fools,” says Leisa Low, a director of Rallings Print Group, a local company in Griffith. “It will take a long time for them to recover.”

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