Abbott needs to be a better boxer


Tony Abbott BattlelinesAmid the clamour surrounding Tony Abbott as the new Opposition leader one of his utterances stands out as having critical significance. It is his definition of what it means to be Her Majesty's Opposition. In his view the job is to oppose the government.

This apparently straightforward definition of Opposition fits the popular image of Abbott the boxer standing his ground resolutely in the middle of the ring.

But it is actually a simplistic view not just of Opposition but of boxing. It neglects the very many different ways of winning a boxing match.

The textbook view of the role in a Westminster system is that it is multi-faceted. Professor Graham Maddox, the Australian political scientist who specialises in the topic, reckons the functions are fourfold.

Even he misses some. In a bicameral Parliament, where the Opposition holds the cards in the upper house, there is at least one more. The Opposition must work with the Government in the Senate to reach common ground. Without compromise there is gridlock.

Nevertheless Maddox's list directs attention to the complexity of successful Opposition.

The Opposition must first be an alternative government ready and able to govern. The shadow cabinet is the alternative government and must present itself convincingly as such. The prime function is not to undermine the government, but to present its own credentials to govern.

This is the task of Abbott's team. Yet so far the emphasis is on attack alone. Attack comes naturally to Abbott; he doesn't have to pretend in the way previous Opposition leaders like Andrew Peacock and Malcolm Turnbull had to. But to attack is not enough.

The second function follows logically. It is to provide alternative policies. Here Maddox would like Abbott's style, at least in one sense. He is critical of me-too middle way policies and sees great value in real choice being offered to voters by distinctive alternative policies. Abbott is a clear choice from Rudd in a way Turnbull was not.

But policies must be more than just slogans. They must have substance. That will be the hardest task for an Abbott Opposition to undertake successfully. They have little time to frame detailed policies. Abbott has a book full of ideas, but he denies that they are his party's policies.

Even to present a new policy on climate change is an enormous task if it is to be completed by February. If he doesn't adopt most of Turnbull's policies, he must begin from scratch across the board in a race against time.

The third function is to become the voice of community grievances. The Opposition has the position to act for the community in the Parliament. This is a difficult thing to ask of any Opposition because they are naturally connected to only some of those groups in the community with grievances. It is unrealistic to expect Abbott to speak for left-wing critics of the Rudd Government on matters like asylum seekers and industrial relations.

Yet if the Abbott Opposition can become the voice of the middle ground in the community as well as the conservative Right then it will be immeasurably stronger.

The fourth function suits Abbott. It is to be critical of the Government. But effective criticism must be part of a broader strategy. Criticism hits home when the Opposition is speaking not just for itself but for others. It hits home when the criticism is supported by answers to the question 'Well what would you do?'. It hits home when the shadow cabinet really does look like an alternative government.

Good Oppositions, like good fighters, are not one dimensional. They must approach the incumbent champion in the ring from a number of angles in order to succeed. This is the fighting style that Abbott's Opposition must adopt to win the next federal election.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and at The Flinders University of South Australia. He is Deputy Chair of the Board of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Topic tags: john warhurst, opposition, liberal, coalition, tony abbott, graham maddox, boxing



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Existing comments

I read your article with great interest because yesterday I sent Tony Abbott an email saying the very same thing!!!!
cynthia wright | 16 December 2009

I am amazed at the criticism of an opposition proposing to oppose legislation introduced by the Government. Of course Labor in opposition in the last parliament passed without query ALL legislation introduced by the then Government which had AN ABSOLUTE MAJORITY IN BOTH HOUSES
G Hassett | 16 December 2009

Thanks for this article John. I also wrote to Tony Abbott, imploring him to educate himself on climate change; to cap his comments and to trade his obvious insincerity on the issue for some substance. It seems to me that anyone concerned about our future needs to let Tony Abbott know how serious we believe climate change to be. Given that he is now part of the debate he needs to be educated - and that means more than a quick glance at the Garnaut Report! What Australia cannot afford is blind obstructionism. We have time to implement one national policy that can successfully transform our energy industry. This is more important than Tony Abbott's (or Kevin Rudd's) career. It would be absolutely in Australia's interests to see bipartisan creativity to this end.
James Waller | 16 December 2009

Surely any skilful boxer must go for the knockout when he sees an opening, even one minute into the first round.

Abbott had to go for the KO on the mysterious ETS. The only clear characteristic of the scheme was an unjustified, unexplained but huge impost on industry and all taxpayers.
Bill Barry | 16 December 2009

I'm sorry to tell you John that your politics/boxing analogy is well wide of the mark. In political heavyweight contests it is essential to have a knock-out punch. Even policy paperweights like Kevin Rudd can win bouts like the WorkChoices Walkover 07, with no political punch. Kevin's electoral opponent, who might happen to fancy himself in the combative atmosphere of the political beer garden, would feel that all his birthdays had come at once if he saw Kevin rushing at him with his little "climate change" arms flailing in 2010.
Claude Rigney | 17 December 2009

Abbott"s preboxing utterances are reminiscent of the lingo that M. Ali and other pugilists use - fly like a wasp sting like a bee and do the shuffle. Let us await his policies. It may be all oil and no machinery.
Blaise Braganza | 17 December 2009

23 March 2010
It looks like Tony is fulfilling all your no-no's.

Number one: He has continued his attack dog 'knock 'em out in round one' style, which unfortunately falls flat amongst the non-boxers in Australia. (Quite a few I reckon)

Number two: Has no policies, especially economic ones.

Number three: Still having trouble connecting with this in a way that is not seen as partisan.

Number four: It's only criticism -- no alternative ideas.

John, the old school Tony Abbott politics of attack and divide are dead. People can relate to Kevin. You guys should get over it and get with the times, politically.
PedroWilsoni | 23 March 2010


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