News National Is Tony Abbott reaping what he sowed?
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Is Tony Abbott reaping what he sowed?

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The conventional political wisdom is that Tony Abbott’s demise began last May when his government handed down a budget that broke promises and was widely perceived as unfair.

An alternative interpretation is that the seeds of his demise were sown far earlier, when he was riding a surge of popularity that carried him all the way into the Lodge.

In March 2011, a week or so after polls showed that Mr Abbott was preferred as prime minister to incumbent Julia Gillard by a massive 45-36, and the Coalition enjoyed a thumping 54-46 two-party lead over Labor, Mr Abbott made an error.

The PM defies his critics – and the opinion polls
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He attended an anti-carbon tax rally in the grounds of Parliament House.

Among those in attendance, as well as an assortment of those who rejected the science of global warming, were members of extremist groups such as the League of Rights and fringe bodies such as the National Civic Council, not to mention Mr Abbott’s old political adversary, Pauline Hanson.

Infamously, as Mr Abbott stood up to speak, the signs “Juliar: Bob Brown’s Bitch” and “Ditch the Witch” appeared behind the aspiring prime minister.

Obviously, the signs were not Mr Abbott’s doing.

But the images that the rally produced were emblematic of the acrimonious, intemperate, ugly level to which Australian politics descended during the previous parliament.

To state the bleeding obvious, the first victim of the “Rudd-Gillard-Rudd chaos”, as the Coalition is dubbing it, was Labor. Ms Gillard was unpopular and so was her carbon tax, which carried the added burden of being a broken promise.

Tony Abbott
Is the PM paying the price for his stint as opposition leader? Photo: AAP

But is it also possible that Mr Abbott is now reaping what he sowed during that lamentable period in Australian public life?

It is virtually a truism that Australia politics is a battle for the centre.

The Coalition defended the protest at Parliament House as a reflection of the understandable anger of middle Australia.

Yet middle Australia, no matter how much it disliked Ms Gillard and her carbon tax, was uncomfortable with what it was seeing.

Not just at the rally, and certainly not just from one side. One shudders to think of Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper in the Speaker’s office and the venality of the Labor caucus, from which not one figure of substance emerged to end the dysfunction.

Mr Abbott, of course, was a stunningly ruthless opposition leader during this period, possibly the greatest Destructo-Man in Australian political history.

But while every blow he struck took him one step closer to power, it also diminished the status of the office which he now holds.

When Mr Abbott asks for respect, or questions why the opposition is not more constructive, middle Australia finds it hard to take him seriously.

Memories are not that short. The reservoir of goodwill was not deep enough for him to survive the political errors he has made. It has almost run dry.

The pessimistic spin on contemporary Australian politics is that the electorate, with a decreased attention span and a shallow obsession with the hip pocket, is not prepared to embrace serious reform.

Governments will be tossed aside on a whim, with one-term parliaments the new paradigm.

The optimistic view is that we are emerging from a period of unprecedented toxicity, of which Mr Abbott was a key player. Perhaps that is why, in the opinion of many Australians, he needs to go.

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