Tony Abbott is grabbing the workers away from the Labor Party

It helps that he comes across as fair dinkum

TONY Abbott went west this week, talking tax and drinking beer with blue-and-yellow workshirt-wearing miners in Western Australia's Pilbara region. It was Abbott's new comfort zone, carved out in recent months at factory gates in Sydney and Melbourne.

When Abbott started courting workers as part of his relentless assault on the Government's carbon pricing "great big new tax on everything", he was mocked by trade union leaders.

The Australian Workers Union's national secretary Paul Howes said he'd be happy to go to the factory floor with Abbott, adding derisively that the Liberal leader was really visiting the bosses, not the workers.

A week ago Howes dropped what could be the death notice for the carbon tax plan by demanding a guarantee that "not one job" go under its implementation.

It's a demand the Government can't meet. Pricing carbon is about economic transformation and, as was the case with breaking down tariff walls 20 years ago, jobs must go, if only to make way for new ones or so the theory goes.

Abbott quickly welcomed Howes' support in his fight against the Government's carbon plan, using it as a rhetorical backdrop to his bar-room schmoozing with the iron ore crowd.

He also had a ready-made comeback for Howes and his "no job losses" demand on Gillard.

"I can guarantee that under the Coalition's climate change policy not a single job will be lost because we won't have a carbon tax," said Abbott.

The miners in the front bar were cheering.

To the minds of some Labor figures Howes' intervention was akin to senior NSW Right powerbroker John Della Bosca belling the GST cat (he said it wasn't such a bad tax) in an interview in late 2000 derailing federal Labor's campaign against John Howard's own big new tax.

There's a growing perception that senior Labor figures are underestimating Abbott, taking refuge in seemingly poor poll numbers for the Liberal leader to deflect from the correspondingly shocking Labor primary vote.

This week's Nielsen poll had Abbott on a net negative approval rating of minus 9 per cent and eight points behind Julia Gillard as preferred prime minister. Newspoll and Galaxy tell a similar story.

However, the voting intention numbers make these figures less relevant. A 16 per cent primary lead and a whopping 56-to-40 two-party preferred advantage means Abbott would become prime minister at a canter if an election was held this weekend.

Another reason to discount Abbott's relatively poor showing is that Gillard's approval is also in negative territory, albeit just over half that of the Opposition Leader.

Unpopular opposition leaders have a habit of becoming popular prime ministers or premiers, having been willing to take the knocks of carping attacks on government policies in return for voter support in the game that matters winning the election.

After Abbott addressed an anti-carbon tax rally outside Parliament House, standing in front of a few sexist, nasty anti-Gillard posters, Labor ministers were lining up to pronounce the Opposition Leader unelectable.

While it was at best poor staff work on Abbott's part to allow himself to be photographed with such offensive posters, it has had no impact on his standing with his personal ratings hardly moving.

"When I saw Abbott on TV with that `bitch' banner in the background, I knew he'd pay a high price," said one minister.

Another remarked that voters were not going to make someone who associated with "the mad right mob" prime minister of Australia.

These perceptions which are regarded as accepted wisdom among most senior Labor politicians reinforce the view formed after last year's election that the 2010 poll was Abbott's best chance.

"That was the speech of someone who knows he's never going to make it to the top," said one senior minister after hearing Abbott's response to Gillard's deal with the Independents to form her government.

Since then Abbott has continued to attack the Government without rest, travelling constantly and delivering the same lines time and again. Meanwhile, Labor's standing in the polls has slipped to historic lows.

Late last year Abbott went off for a very short break, declaring that he would use this year to broaden his political and policy agenda, moving on from his tireless oppositionist position.

Even some of Abbott's Coalition colleagues doubted he would change his spots, something that was given currency by the early renewed attacks on all things Labor.

But Abbott has been quietly rounding out an agenda, adopting one of Kevin Rudd's successful tricks from his 2007 campaign against Howard.

Then Rudd would anticipate Government action and announce Labor's policy on whatever upcoming policy Howard had in the works.

Abbott in recent weeks has stolen a march on Gillard twice, first on welfare to work and this week on mental health. It not only unsettles the Government, it devalues the eventual official announcement.
In his book Battlelines (also unrated by Labor), Abbott reflects approvingly on Howard's strategy of stealing voters from Labor's home turf, calling him "the great boundary buster" of Australian politics.

It's clear Abbott is trying to out-bust his hero - and he's having some marked success.


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