Abbott close to finishing line but we still need two in the race

IF THIS week's Newspoll primary vote of 27 per cent was replicated at an election, Labor would lose more than half its House of Representatives seats. That would be a catastrophe for it, but it would also make the political scales undesirably lopsided.

Even those anxious to get rid of the Labor government should acknowledge it might be best to have a robust opposition to face an Abbott government.

Labor strategists are understandably becoming frantic about the prospect of going into an election campaign with the vote in this deep trough. The worry is increased because while the election most likely will be late next year, the hung Parliament means it is always possible that unforeseen events might bring it earlier.

The parlous primary vote is why, only a couple of months after the leadership was apparently so decisively settled, senior Labor figures are talking about it again - although, having looked into that cupboard, they appear to have shut the door for the moment, feeling it's all too hard just now.

For Labor strategists, the frightening thing about the primary vote is that it has been rock bottom since the 2010 election, so it is unrealistic to think something will miraculously push it up substantially.

Labor polled 38 per cent in the 2010 election, which neither side won. Since then, in 16 Age/Nielsen polls, the highest Labor's primary vote has reached has been 35 per cent - once, in November 2010. On eight occasions it has been above 30 per cent, and on 30 per cent twice. Six times the vote has been in the 20s, as low as 26 last July. It was 27 per cent on March 29-31 (down from 34 per cent in February).

A 30 per cent vote would translate into a two-party result of about 44-56 per cent, a 6 per cent swing since 2010 that, if uniform, would cost about 25 seats. The Newspoll result (41-59 per cent two-party) would cost Labor about 37 of its current 72 seats (counting Craig Thomson's seat as Labor). Swings are not uniform, but that's no comfort for Labor.

Election analyst Antony Green highlights the terrifying prospects for Labor in NSW. ''It has nine NSW seats under 6 per cent - nine of the 25 seats nationally that would be taken out by a swing of that size.''

He predicts that ''whatever the national swing, it is likely to be higher in NSW''.

The extreme Labor doomsayers fear that if the NSW and Queensland state routings were followed by something similar federally, it would be the beginning of the ALP's end. This is highly unlikely.

The nature of our political and electoral systems tends to keep the two-party system entrenched (and don't hang out for the Greens replacing Labor). It is much more likely that eventually Labor would recover, though the strategists know this would be an enormously painful process.

But what would the new political landscape look like if Labor was decimated? With a dire Labor vote, there would be an outside chance the Coalition would get effective control of the Senate. Would that be bad? The answer will depend on where you are coming from.

If Tony Abbott had a sympathetic Senate, he'd be able to easily implement policies for which he received a mandate at the election - and some for which he had no mandate. If he faced a hostile Senate, the country could end up with a second (double dissolution) election, assuming Labor did not think better of its opposition to key Coalition policies and retreat from confrontation.

Having the two houses in complete or near sync can remove an important check in the system. It can also, as we saw in the final term of John Howard, encourage a certain arrogance and political blindness that may end up hurting the government.

What about the lower house? Assuming a Coalition government, there are good arguments for believing the country might be better off if Abbott has a healthy working majority rather than an overwhelming one.

One aspect of Abbott that raises concern is the nagging doubt about what he would really do if he had his hands on the levers of power.

He does understand the importance of keeping promises - if he ever did not, Gillard's experience has taught him. Nevertheless, his ascension to the leadership was so unexpected, and as he smells power he is so scripted and managed, that no one can be sure whether the voters would get what they cast their ballots for.

Personally, I think Abbott is more centrist and pragmatic (apart from on certain moral ''life'' issues) than often believed. That puts him at odds with a sizeable number in his own ranks. The discipline of being on the cusp of victory mostly constrains the internal critics, but there are quite a few who would like to push him into stronger stands on various issues. In some cases this might be good, in others, not so much.

The most notable is industrial relations, where Abbott's inclination has been for limited change, while the harder liners, though recognising that they can't go back to WorkChoices, don't in their hearts believe it went too far.

So, while the Labor strategists have their obvious reasons for looking at all options to get the ALP vote more competitive, it would also be useful insurance against the almost certain Abbott government turning feral. When the next election can realistically be lost, a government is less likely to stray totally off the reservation.

Michelle Grattan is political editor of The Age.

-National Times

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