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Conservatism on Top Down Under

Meet Tony Abbott, the likely next prime minister of Australia

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By FRED BARNES
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Yet Rudd is personally popular with the public. That’s his value. He’s a master of social media. He tweets to almost 1.4 million followers, texts, and posts on Facebook almost nonstop. Fluent in Mandarin, he’s popular in the Chinese community. Rudd is an attention grabber. And Labor is gambling he can save them from a catastrophic defeat by appealing to younger voters and those who pay minimal attention to politics. Labor party leaders “didn’t want him,” says Brian Loughnane, Abbott’s campaign manager. “But when the Titanic is going down and panic sets in and there’s only one lifeboat .  .  . ” Rudd was seen as the only alternative to certain defeat with Gillard.

Initially it seemed to work. For three years, Liberals had led Labor in polls. But with Rudd’s return, Labor pulled even with Liberals, and Rudd’s personal approval was roughly 20 percentage points higher than Abbott’s. By the way, the media shorthand for Rudd’s reentry is the “Ruddstoration.” In 2007, Liberals were crushed by a “Ruddslide.”

But the Rudd surge turned out to be “a Romney bounce,” says Greg Sheridan of the Australian, the national newspaper. Like Mitt Romney’s spike in polls after his first debate with President Obama, it quickly faded. As of last week, Labor trailed Liberals, 54-46 percent. Even worse, the view of Rudd as trustworthy has dropped from 73 percent to 50 percent since his return. Abbott was seen as trustworthy by 57 percent. He also had a double-digit lead over Rudd on handling the economy.

As a debater, Rudd is regarded as superior to Abbott. But he unexpectedly failed to shine in their first televised skirmish before a panel of media questioners on August 11. In his closing pitch, he made a cogent argument for how he would deal with an economy in transition. Abbott had what Geoff Kitney of the Financial Review called a “killer comeback.” Rudd had said the same in the 2007 campaign and his plans had come to nothing, Abbott said. And they would again.

Abbott was less glib and more disciplined. He made his few points crisply. He seized on Rudd’s campaign slogan, “a new way.” If you “want a new way,” Abbott said, “you’ve got to choose a new government.” He said this repeatedly. Abbott closed with this: “I am ready, my team is ready, our plans are ready, our nation is ready, and it’s now up to you to choose real change.”

Rudd may not be ready. His estrangement from his party would be a liability in governing. Yet that relationship may be beyond repair. When he announced the date of the election, he didn’t mention Labor once. A week later, Foreign Minister Bob Carr was Rudd’s stand-in at a Sydney event of the influential Australian-American Leadership Dialogue. In his speech, Carr didn’t mention Rudd.

Liberals have the advantage of numbers in the election. The pickup of a single seat would give them a parliamentary majority of 76—that is, counting the seats they now hold or are held by independents from strongly Liberal districts. To form a new government, Labor must gain at least five seats, a daunting task when the momentum of the campaign is going the other way.

Australian politics is different. Liberals and Labor members of Parliament aren’t pals. They don’t socialize after hours. But neither are they as polarized as Republicans and Democrats. Abbott and company are less conservative than Republicans in Congress, Labor members a bit more centrist than Democrats. And while they quibble, they fundamentally agree on a balanced budget (preferably with a surplus), free trade, and a restrictionist immigration policy. They’re all internationalists. They embrace ties to the United States. They split on environmental issues and labor-management relations, but not bitterly.

The parties are like the GOP and Democrats of a few decades ago, when they overlapped ideologically in the center. Perhaps a quarter of Liberals in Parliament are left of center. They’re reminiscent of liberal Republicans. Labor has a right wing. When Communists dominated the left, Labor’s right-wingers were strongly anti-Communist. That defined them. Also, dozens of Labor members of Parliament agree with Abbott on social issues, particularly abortion. They just don’t sound off about it.

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