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Published: The Drum Unleashed and Online Opinion

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Increasingly people are asking a question that seemed silly several months ago, can Tony roll Kevin?

By any yard stick Tony Abbott is doing well as Leader of the Opposition. He is doing what opposition leaders should do by taking the fight up to the Government. He is feisty and combative. He has put some cracks in Rudd’s glass jaw. He gained good mileage on the insulation debacle, effectively ending the political career of Peter Garrett, at the same time exposing him as a lightweight who allowed himself to be bullied by Rudd.

Abbott has guts, no doubt about it, he is a risk taker, a can do sort of individual in the best Australian tradition. I would want him in my battalion. Whatever his faults he is an on the spot leader. He can mix it, he is a go forward, never retreat bloke, the Albert Jacka of Australian politics.

Rudd on the other hand, like Beazley, is your classic staff officer, safe and sound behind the lines, knows everything without ever going to the front, gaining promotion by brown nosing the brass and shafting those below.

As the archetypal Australian, leading by example, with humour, optimism and energy, Abbott should be a shoe in for Prime Minister, but it is unlikely that he will be.

Abbott also has a few political faults and liabilities that will deny him the prize, amongst them is a belief that he can get away with saying whatever he believes is necessary to get wavering troops on side. Take his maternity leave proposals. A very good headline grabber, but few really believe that it would survive an Abbott administration unscathed.

Rudd’s profligate panic in the face of a possible dive in the Australian economy in 2008/09 means that patching up the economy will be the number one priority for an incoming Coalition Government. No one wants a hefty new tax, no matter how desirable the policy it supports.

Brought up believing in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, Abbott has a need for father figures, whether that be, the Pope, Pell or Papa Howard. Abbott might be happy to have them in his parlour as frequent guests but many of the rest of us do not. Howard was voted out at the last election and that is where he (and Keating) should remain, unless of course he would like to busy himself with issues of social justice.

Abbott’s single biggest failure to date has been his inability to capture the middle ground. His appeal has been to people who will vote for him anyway. His foray into maternity leave appears to signal an awareness of his electoral weakness, but it was clumsy and as time transpires is being taken less seriously. When Bob Brown endorses a Coalition proposal, cynicism, sarcasm and farce are more in evidence than serious sentiments.

Rudd and Abbott outdo each other in their demonization of so called boat people, has it not occurred to either, that people in the middle of Australian politics are sick of the bullying implicit in this puerile display of machismo and the lie it gives to their much touted Christian beliefs. The issue, as played by both parties, is not an election winner.

Abbott, apparently without much thought, has endorsed the defence expenditure program of Rudd. Some big ticket items in that program do not make sense. The money does not exist to implement them. The decision to buy the F35 was driven from Howards’ office; if pursued it will result in a very expensive second rate aircraft. The decision to build 12 submarines was driven out of Rudd’s office. It is a political rather than strategic decision, it will be hugely expensive and in the light of previous experience an off the shelf purchase of half that number would be more prudent, certainly much cheaper and easier to man.

Abbott needs to identify policy that appeals not only to the right but also to the middle. There is altruism and tolerance in the middle. The middle is concerned about the environment; water; Australia’s place in the world, badly damaged by Howard and unrepaired by Rudd; racism; childcare, from birth to school; the cost of education, both secondary and tertiary; aged care; infrastructure, particularly public transport; public housing and of course sustainable and equitable improvement to health delivery.

Rudd goaded Abbott into the debate at the National Press Club on health care. Abbott accepted, wanting to intimidate Rudd and put him on the back foot in the run up to the election. Abbott is a better fighter, a better performer; Rudd will show up by comparison. Rudd is a corridor man, a backstabber and as such he does not readily handle open and upfront competition. He needs clear air in order to perform. Rudd can’t brawl, Abbott can.

The Press Club debate was uninspiring and uninformative. Without a policy Abbott did not have a platform. He performed below expectations and sealed opinion on who took honours with a silly (slightly hysterical) laugh toward the end. Rudd was as vacuous as ever. To get any traction in the next two or three leaders debates Abbott will need to have policy and facts at his finger tips. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Scrapping, and winning, will not deliver Abbott the election because for as long as he carries Minchin, Tuckey, Andrews, Ruddock and others of the Liberal Party troglodyte right he will remain in opposition; and despite what he might believe, Barnaby Joyce is an electoral liability. With Abbott in full cry, Joyce is a supernumerary, he is not needed.

Abbott will not disgrace himself, in fact he will probably cause Rudd to eat humble pie, which would be no bad thing, but he will not be Prime Minister, not this time, and maybe not ever, but he will pave the way for change in the Liberal Party and perhaps the Labor Party.