When he became leader of the Liberal party by just one vote in December 2009, Tony Abbott saved the party and the non-Labor cause nationally from probable annihilation. Now he must use the same leadership qualities to win the next election to rescue Australia from its current policy quagmire.

The challenge facing Abbott when he became leader cannot be exaggerated. The Liberals were still recovering from their 2007 defeat and the loss of the steady-ing effects of John Howard’s leadership. The Liberals were in a mess. By 2009, just two years into opposition, they already had their second leader. Brendan Nelson had not sparked and had been replaced by Malcolm Turnbull. The former AMA president tried hard, but he was never convincing about his commitment to the non-Labor cause. Such doubts were confirmed when he took an overseas post offered by the Rudd government.

Turnbull struggled. His lack of political nous was evident in his handling of the so-called leaked documents from a Treasury official. Worse, Turnbull had put the non-Labor parties into a policy no-win situation with his support of the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme. Turnbull, always the rational businessman but never the political entrepreneur, broke the first rule of opposition: never agree with the government unless their policy is demonstrably right in all respects and there is no acceptable alternative. The Liberals under Turnbull were goaded into the error of bipartisanship and policy ‘me-tooism’: death for oppositions in our adversarial political system. If an opposition does not oppose it is not earning its keep, and voters desert it.

Also, support for the ETS, regardless of its form, would have caused a split with the Nationals who were uncomfortable with the concept. Thus, Turnbull would have ignored the fundamental principle of non-Labor federal politics laid down by Robert Menzies and highlighted by the ‘Joh for Canberra’ folly that cost Howard government in 1987 — do not rattle the Coalition; disunity is death.

What a gift all this would have been for Labor, which Rudd would have exploited at the subsequent election. Little wonder that Labor supporters now show such nostalgia for Turnbull’s spiritless days in opposition and suggest his return.

Turnbull’s problem was that his personal experience and ideological base is inner urban Sydney. That is the centre of his universe. He neither understands non-Labor voters outside this limited sphere nor the intrinsic nature of the Liberal party, which is not a party of business, or free market economics, or even small-l liberalism on social issues. It is more complex. It is, as John Howard understood, a ‘broad church’ with some fundamental conservative beliefs that can be changed only with great care and sensitivity. Turnbull has great ability, but it is as a senior minister, not a leader, where he should seek to influence public policy.

By contrast, Abbott came to the leadership with an instinctive understanding of the demands of opposition at that time and the complex nature of his party. He chucked his previous support for the ETS early on. He saw that you cannot be an effective opposition while at the same time endorsing, without seriously questioning, the major controversial policies of the government. He appreciated that policy in a democracy is as much about competition as it is about developing evidence-based solutions.

By so doing, Abbott showed a quality common among all great leaders — a willingness to stand alone if necessary; to lead rather than to be led by opinion polls and focus groups. The polls, on issues like the ETS, were not good for him at the time, but his self-belief allowed him to seek the leadership when few rated his chances.

By challenging successfully for the leadership and then almost winning the 2010 election, Abbott saved the Liberal party. Moreover, he provided a policy alternative to the seemingly unbeatable Rudd Labor hegemony — one that was aided and abetted by an uncritical media and a biased academia itself supported by extensive subventions from the Rudd government. Abbott rescued Australian democracy from Labor monopoly and consensus inertia and restored the opposition. Had Turnbull continued as leader the Coalition would have disintegrated, splintering into conflicting and politically irrelevant groups, unable to oppose effectively or to be a viable alternative.

So Abbott saved the Liberal party. Now he has a harder task. He and the opposition have a new role. They are no longer clawing their way back from political defeat as they were prior to the last election. Now, close to government, Abbott has to save Australia with policies to prolong the great Australian success story, currently under threat by the present government’s policy sellout. This means getting off the carbon tax crutch. It means presenting a range of policies which restore our declining productivity and looking to the future. It means not pandering to particular vested groups. And it requires challenging certain aspects of the ‘social justice’ fervour with its proposals for unlimited spending and the ideological mania for equality rather than seeking practical goals of fairness and real living improvements.

Abbott has yet to make the transition in style, strategy and most importantly real policy leadership from opposition ‘headkicker’ and opportunist to potential prime minster with solutions to both immediate and long-term policy problems.

He still must clarify to the electorate what a new Abbott government will do, as distinct from what it opposes. He must convince Australians to confront the reality that there are some things government cannot and should not do. This is not just about delivering a balanced budget, the opposition’s current obsession, but about the very nature of our society, individual freedom, responsibility and choice. All this must be done within a new framework clarifying what Liberal principles mean these days. The real issue, given the particular political and social background of Abbott and much of his front bench, is whether they even know what those principles are.

Abbott’s recent statements about productivity highlight an awareness of the right issues, but are light on detail and contradicted by the opposition’s extravagant parental leave scheme, failure to address labour market deregulation and inability as yet to articulate real reforms in education and welfare.

Abbott’s task will grow harder as Gillard seeks to neutralise the opposition’s policies of attack, as with asylum-seekers, and with the extensive resources of government rolls out policy package after policy package, like the recent Asian Challenge. Reacting negatively to these announcements is no way to convince the electorate that he is ready for government. Instead of taking cues from government initiatives, always a problem for oppositions, Abbott has to show leadership to forge a new policy agenda of real reform across a wider range of issues than he has hitherto. Whether he can do so will determine his and Australia’s future.

Scott Prasser is a political analyst based in Canberra.