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Tony Abbott speaks to his adviser Adrian Hurst during Question Time in Canberra, February 12, 2015.

It's the simplest of questions, and the Prime Minister should have knocked it out of the park. Who is he?

Back during the 1990 election the Liberal Party ran one of the least inspiring advertising campaigns based around a jingle that began, "There was questions that just have to be answered".

In politics, when you become leader there are always such questions that just have to be answered. They’re actually the basic ones and they’re usually pretty easy because they involve telling voters about yourself rather than having to explain complex policy.

This week began with a vote in the Liberal Party room over whether or not there should be a spill of the leadership position. Prior to the meeting Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly suggested that dumping Abbott as leader due to "minor mistakes" would be "like throwing someone off My Kitchen Rules for burning the toast."

Except someone would be thrown off the show for burning the toast. If you can’t even manage that basic task, you dont belong in the competition.

Getting the basics right is imperative of leaders. But all week Tony Abbott has struggled with the basics – and it culminated in Thursday’s Question Time when he referred to job losses under Labor as "a holocaust of jobs in defence industries".

His inability to get the easiest things right was observed repeatedly in his interview on Monday night with Leigh Sales.

Amidst the awkward and inevitable questions about the support of his party room, Sales asked him a very straightforward and easy question, which really should have been dealt with ease because it just has to be answered when you are a leader.  

She asked him "Who are you?"

She gave the delivery a bit of a tweak by prefacing it with reference to three types of Tony Abbott – the one in opposition, the one in government up till Monday, and then the one from Monday onwards who says he is going to change. But in the end, most leaders would have quickly picked the spin and jumped down the pitch and hit it far over the boundary.

It’s a question that allowed the PM to espouse what he believes in. He could have answered “I’m a man who believes in ...” or “I’m the Prime Minister of the greatest country in the world and who believes that to make it greater we need to ...”

It’s not that much of a variant on the old stock question of “Why do you want to be Prime Minister?”

Instead Tony Abbott replied, “Well, Leigh, I will let the Australian people form their own conclusions, but let’s just go back to the captain’s picks.”

Abbott, the man who for most of his career has made a living out of all out attack, is so trapped defending his own position that he blocked a long hop back to the bowler ... who promptly delivered it again.

Sales asked him the question a second time, suggesting there was some confusion about “what your government is and what you stand for?”

In reality this made it an even easier question. Abbott should have on speed dial in his head the response of “we stand for lower, fairer taxes, smaller more efficient government, stronger growth, stronger borders, blah blah blah ...”

But instead he played and missed – answering with “The – let’s look at the situation that we inherited, Leigh.”

The man has reached a point where having for so long referenced every issue with an attack on the ALP, that now he cannot even view his own government or self without reference to the opposition.

Indeed this was the case in the lead up to and just after the leadership spill motion on Monday morning.

Last Sunday he suggested that “The only question for our party is do we want to reduce ourselves to the level of the Labor Party in dragging down a first term Prime Minister?”

The only question ...

On Monday after the party room meeting voted against a spill motion he told journalists that "we have decided that we are not going to go down the Labor Party path".

Thus the "we are not Labor" trope has so infected his thought process that it is what first springs to mind when asked what he stands for.

Rather kindly (if in a very sinister way, given she clearly knew that Abbott was foundering), Sales asked the question again. And again he resorted to mentioning the ALP, saying "And let me answer it by saying: going into the last election, the then Government was saying that the deficit would be $18 billion. It turned out to be $48 billion..."

He not only needed to refer to the ALP, he needed to mislead the historical truth by ignoring that prior to the election the then ALP government released an economic update which put the deficit at $30bn – a figure which was also contained in the pre-election economic and fiscal outlook. 

One final time Sales gave the Prime Minister a chance to deal with this straightforward question, and finally he found an answer, "Well, obviously we stand for a government which believes in lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom."

But as hapless as his response was, it provides a warning for Bill Shorten.

What would he answer, and perhaps more importantly, what would voters answer on his behalf? For now he remains a blank page. And that page cannot be filled by just attacking the government.

The current government has essentially formed itself into being "Not Labor". When Bill Shorten inevitably comes to be asked the questions that just have to be answered he will need to be able respond with more than  being "not Not Labor".

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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