Greg Ansley: Abbott's swipe during Obama welcome yet another black mark

Tony Abbott just couldn't help himself. In the glow of the world's most powerful man, Australia's Opposition Leader defied convention this week to drag local politics into his parliamentary welcome to United States President Barack Obama.

Abbott sideswiped Prime Minister Julia Gillard over her carbon and mining taxes, and smirked at her decision to reverse Labor policy and sell uranium to India.

This was not Abbott's first use of visiting leaders for domestic gain - he did the same during welcomes for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key in June and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last year - but this was his most obvious.

"There's no event too big in which he doesn't show himself to be too small," Anthony Albanese, the Leader of the House of Representatives, told ABC radio. "He always goes a step too far."

Embarrassing some of his own MPs but supported by others, Abbott was unrepentant, claiming he had in fact been congratulating Gillard for her backflip on uranium rather than criticising her.

But increasingly, political commentators are sensing Abbott is now damaging himself, bound by automatic rejection of Government policy that has earned him the nickname of "Dr No" and failing to project a sense of purpose and direction into an Opposition that has surfed on the wake of the Titanic Labor was increasingly becoming.

That wake is now abating as Gillard ticks off her most controversial and unpopular legislation, pushing a carbon tax through Parliament and moving ahead with a good chance of following it with a new mining tax.

With those under her belt, Gillard now has her best shot at rolling back the anger much of the electorate has directed at her since knifing former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and breaking her campaign promise to reject a price on carbon.

She has the best part of two years left in her term. Most Australians are now resigned to the carbon tax and tired of the debate. They are more concerned about their jobs and families, and at the Government's ability to avert the worst of global financial turmoil.

Roy Morgan and Westpac/Melbourne Institute polls show Australians are feeling more confident, especially in the mortgage belt where interest rates have been cut. Most feel the country is heading in the right direction.

And a new Nielsen poll in Fairfax newspapers this week indicated that voters are beginning to tire of Abbott, a leader they have never really taken to and whose performance has been marked by backflips and negativity.

Since last year's election Abbott's satisfaction rating in Newspoll has fallen from 48 per cent to 36 per cent, while dissatisfaction has risen from 38 per cent to 53 per cent.

He trailed Gillard as preferred Prime Minister until June, when he pulled ahead.

In the new Nielsen poll, Abbott has slipped back to level pegging with Gillard, while his disapproval rating of 54 per cent was well ahead of his 41 per cent satisfaction score.

Gillard's approval rating, in contrast, rose 6 points to 39 per cent and dissatisfaction fell 5 points to 39.

Abbott has hardly fallen into a hole. Newspolls continue to track voters' greater unhappiness with Gillard, and all recent polls show the Coalition would still win by a landslide in an election now.

But the political winds are bearing a hint of change that has been picked up by commentators, Liberal MPs and some of the party's former stars. Their message is that Abbott needs to start changing direction: Dr No just won't cut it for much longer.

Abbott has run his Opposition on tight discipline, narrow focus and populist sloganeering - a formula that is now grating on a large part of a target audience that has little love for either leader, distrusts both major parties, and holds their recent performance in contempt.

His arsenal is running low. The carbon and mining taxes are slipping below the horizon - this week's Nielsen poll showed 53 per cent backed carbon taxation, 35 per cent opposed it - and he has lost much of his credibility on asylum seekers.

By winning his battle with Gillard over Labor's plan to empower all future Governments to adopt the policies they regard as the best answer to refugee boats, Abbott also killed his own policy of offshore processing.

Recent gains for Gillard and continued rebuttals for Rudd have for now also blunted the Opposition's attempt to paint Labor as a party facing another leadership crisis.

Indeed, bubbles of discontent continue to erupt from within his own party, which was bitterly divided over the coup that saw Abbott backflip on climate change policy and successfully turn on his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.

Abbott's later success in hammering Gillard and the need for the Liberals to restore a face of unity and stability has since kept dissent in check, but damaging cracks still appear from time to time.

Abbott has clashed publicly and angrily with his deputy and Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, with Turnbull, and with former Liberal heavyweights Peter Costello and Peter Reith.

He has been accused from within the party of squandering goodwill by opposing good policy for the sake of it. None of this yet spells Abbott's doom by any means - but the warning bells are starting to sound.

- NZ Herald

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