So this post is a warning to anyone else who prefers Labor over the Coalition, even if only as the lesser of two evils.
Beware the Subtle Conservatives! Because they are coming, and the Left just isn't prepared to meet them.
To quote progressive political campaigner Joel Dignam,
EVERYONE IN AUSTRALIA BE WARNED. A first-term Tory Government just got re-elected with increased representation after five years of attacks on health, education, and social security. If you were complacently looking forward to Abbott's downfall, now would be a good time to be less complacent.
This really sums up the 'right-wing' strategy fairly well. Get on the front foot early in their first term, advance their political ambitions and cuts to social welfare policies. Then, towards the end of their term, start 'liberalising' and passing popular, broad-based policies which attract voters.
John Howard did it incredibly well, passing the GST early in his second term, then recovering well with popular asylum seeker policies.
Wikipedia says this:
In the first half of 2001, rising petrol prices, voter enmity over the implementation of the GST, a spike in inflation and economic slowdown led to bad opinion polls and predictions the Government would lose office in the election later that year. With Howard telling Cabinet he would not be "sacrificed on the pyre of ideological purity", the government announced a series of policy reversals and softenings which boosted the government's fortunes, as did news that the economy had avoided recession. Following the Liberal Party win at the Aston by-election, Howard said that the Coalition was "back in the game". The government's position on "border protection", in particular the Tampa affair where Howard refused the landing of asylum seekers rescued by a Norwegian freighter, consolidated the improving polls for the government, as did the 11 September 2001 attacks. Howard led the government to victory in the 2001 federal election with an increased majority.Then the Torys in the UK managed a massive election win, when all the predictions were for a hung parliament, led by coalitions of parties. I don't know much about the politics in the UK, but several traditional parties were devastated into political oblivion.
Finally, Tony Abbott is looking dangerously close to becoming more popular than Phil Sharten, uh, Dill Smorten. He successfully delivered a budget that didn't offend anyone (except those pesky lefty services such as Community Legal Centre funding and the courts), and he is being very politically astute in diverting the gay marriage issue. His border protection policies are popular, even if barbaric, and even his embarrassing gaffes are no longer looking so critical.
I am terrified that we are going to see a second term coalition government!
Paula Matthewson, John Howard's former media adviser, wrote on ABC's 'The Drum' that "If Labor doesn't become more proficient, or bring in some expert advice, its poor timing could lead to the party being unceremoniously howled off the political stage at the next federal election."
And I'm concerned she is right. I foresee Abbott gaining a lot of political capital by reversing his position on same-sex marriage, and potentially delivering reform with a coalition free vote, or, indeed, even a binding vote in favor of marriage equality. If he times it right, he could ride the tide of political opinion all the way to a second term.
Because that is what Labor's supporters are supporting; progressive political reform. If the Coalition plays politics well, and near the end of its term starts advocating for some sort of populist policies on progressive issues, then Labor really doesn't stand a chance. If the Coalition supports same-sex marriage, and throws its weight behind it, it loses nothing. This is an issue whose time has come, and is now a political inevitability. Therefore, it could be a powerful tool for whichever party uses the opinion polls the best.
I think that Labor (or another viable progressive party (...crickets)) needs to spend some time developing policies, then go out and consult as widely and as publicly as possible, and make people feel like they own the policies being delivered. Then, they need to sell them loudly and clearly, and get themselves ready for the next election with a solid, well-researched policy base.
Otherwise, Tony Abbott might just get to keep the lodge!