When John Howard addressed the National Press Club last June, he delivered a masterclass in how to sell difficult reforms to skeptical voters.
Appearing beside Bob Hawke, Australia’s second-longest serving prime minister argued the electorate wanted two requirements before backing tough policy: “They want to be satisfied that it’s in the national interest, because they have a deep sense of nationalism and patriotism. They also want to be satisfied that it’s fundamentally fair.”
As Tony Abbott prepares for Monday’s make-or-break appearance at the same venue, how he must wish for just a skerrick of the innate common sense that saw Mr Howard win four elections on the trot.
Reeling from Saturday’s extraordinary result in Queensland, and his equally breathtakingly stupid decision to knight Prince Phillip, Mr Abbott has thus far failed to persuade voters his reform agenda is either in the national interest or fundamentally fair.
It has come to this: Mr Abbott’s senior colleagues fret that he’s lost the mob for good, that he’s too far gone to win back the trust and respect of swinging voters in marginal seats.
Monday’s address to the National Press Club shapes as a critical test for Mr Abbott, who appears on life support. He has to deliver a compelling narrative as he did at the same venue in early 2012 when, as opposition leader, he performed with spirit and convincingly.
Then, with Labor continuing to splutter under Julia Gillard and the incessant chatter about leadership, Mr Abbott stepped up to the podium and sounded, well, prime ministerial.
“What Australia most needs now is competent, trustworthy, adult government with achievable plans for a better economy and a stronger society,” he declared.
Oh, how he must wish he could rewind several years because the PM has failed to deliver government that is trustworthy (too many broken promises in last year’s Budget).
As for competent? Well, the opinion polls suggest the electorate views this prime minister as one of the worst since federation.
No competent national leader would indulge his love of the monarchy by awarding a knighthood to a British Duke with a penchant for putting his regal boots in his mouth.
Mr Abbott’s decision to reinstate sirs and dames was bad enough. But at least he could have awarded the gong to one of our own, a favoured son of the Southern Cross such as cricket legend Richie Benaud or an esteemed scientist.
Instead, the PM will front the Press Club knowing that each of his 121 federal colleagues will be carefully scrutinising every minute of his hour-long performance, many of them convinced that their survival now depends on removing Mr Abbott from his lofty position sooner rather than later.
Several Queensland MPs with inside knowledge of the weekend’s state election claim the ‘Abbott factor’ was cited as the No.2 reason by voters who deserted the Liberal National Party for Labor. That message will be conveyed and amplified as federal MPs prepare to return to Canberra for the first session of parliament next week.
Against this backdrop, Mr Abbott will be under pressure during his National Press Club address like perhaps no other PM who has gone before him. He has to deliver a mea culpa, owning up to the mistakes of the past and appealing to his colleagues, most of whom are jaded, that he can be trusted to be more consultative from now on.
On Sunday morning, Mr Abbott was at least starting to sound as though he understood the need to change.
“I accept that we have some difficulties (but) we have listened, we have learnt, we will be a more consultative and collegial government in 2015,” he told reporters.
But whether we start to see some of the more contrite Mr Abbott at the National Press Club or not, the fear of his colleagues is that his standing is too far gone with an electorate that appears more skittish and less rusted on than at any time in the past.
Mr Howard, together with his long-standing Treasurer Peter Costello, was a formidable advocate for even the toughest of reforms. Witness the successful introduction of the GST and the full sale of Telstra, with barely a peep from voters.
The Prime Minister has taken some tough decisions, such as the announcement of a second airport for Sydney. But the danger for Mr Abbott and his Coalition colleagues is that an electorate that appears increasingly captive to the visceral shoutings of social media has made up its mind. For good.
If Liberal hardheads decide that’s the case, then nothing will save Tony Abbott the indignity of being removed from high office, even with the sage advice of his mentor, John Winston Howard.
Steve Lewis has been reporting federal politics in Canberra since 1992 and is the co-author with Chris Uhlmann of two political novels, The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code. He is a senior adviser with Newgate Communications and Senior Vice President of the National Press Club.