“It’s worth it just for the cartoon of her nose,” the man in my local newsagency told me as I purchased the Financial Review yesterday. Like all the newspapers, the Fin had a special election supplement. Its frontpage cartoon by the incomparable David Rowe also contained a jug-eared Tony Abbott but the retailer seemed more agitated by Julia Gillard.
It was a small, perhaps meaningless, moment but it affirmed for me that Gillard is especially crucial to this election. Everyone is talking about her.
The day before, waiting in a queue at a petrol station, I observed a young man nodding in the direction of the smiling Prime Minister on the frontpage of a Sunday newspaper. “What do you think of Gillard?” he asked his female companion. The young woman tossed her hair to simulate Gillard’s locks. “With hair like this, whaddya think?” came the reply.
On ABC2’s News Breakfast program yesterday, the retiring Victorian Liberal member for McEwen, Fran Bailey, heaped praise on Kevin Rudd over his handling of the bushfires emergency. She was joined last night by the Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop, on the ABC1’s QandA, similarly effusive in her support for Kevin Rudd’s right to face the people at an election. This sudden discovery of the virtues of St. Kevin from Queensland is almost comical.
It’s hard to avoid the political message from the Opposition. On Day 3 of the campaign they remained obsessed with Julia Gillard. The ostensible object of their pre-occupation is Kevin Rudd but Gillard is the target.
The woman who “executed” Rudd infuriates her opponents. Their hostility is visceral. Some, like Peter Costello, who mocked her voice yesterday in a juvenile display dripping with scorn, must surely recognise in Gillard a political killer.
When Gillard sat the obligatory campaign entrance exam with Kerry O’Brien on The 7.30 Report last night, she gave an accomplished performance, firmly swatting away O’Brien’s suggestions and implications. Audaciously clutching Moving Forward to her political bosom, she deftly painted her opponents as the political backsliders. To wit: “I mean, doesn’t it strike you as a little bit odd that the Liberal Party, the Liberal Party, is going into this election campaign promising increased company taxation and it’s a Labor prime minister that wants to cut company tax..”
Prime Minister for just over three weeks, and with an opinion poll showing her lead over Abbott in the preferred prime minister ratings stretching to 30 points, Gillard appeared to be more assured and on message than ever.
But Abbott was also prominent yesterday – for all the wrong reasons. His day started with an appearance on Channel 9’s Today. The host, Lisa Wilkinson, pressed him on WorkChoices, suggesting he had only committed to not bringing it back during one term of government.
“You’ve only said that it’s dead for three years – that’s one term.” Abbott’s response was simultaneously emphatic but loose: “I have an election to win, it’s the 2010 election. WorkChoices is dead, it’s buried, it’s cremated. If I win this election, I will not change the legislation – I can hardly be stronger than that.”
“So you won’t change it at this point,” said Wilkinson, exuding meaningful innuendo.
Abbott lacks the verbal dexterity of Gillard and finds it hard to extricate himself from the inane verbal cul de sacs that interviewers take him down. He was left trapped in this encounter. Perhaps aware of that, his interview with 3AW’s Neil Mitchell led to the signing of a piece of paper affirming that WorkChoices is “dead, buried and cremated, now and forever”. It was an undignified moment, a moment of great political weakness paraded before a radio audience and recorded by television cameras.
It reminded me of that moment in the 2004 election when Mark Latham signed a huge billboard commitment on interest rates. It didn’t help Latham and this won’t help Abbott.
For Abbott, WorkChoices has become what Mungo MacCallum once described as an “unflushable turd”. It just will not go away. Even when Abbott performs a miraculous simultaneous burial and cremation, it keeps coming back, a political Kenny McCormick.
Yesterday, WorkChoices left its stench everywhere Abbott went. The man who can’t stop talking about the execution of Kevin Rudd was struggling to execute the policy that mortally wounded John Howard and may yet kill off Abbott’s electoral prospects.
At the end of the day, the Greens Senator Bob Brown appeared on Lateline to discuss, amongst other things, the preference deal stitched together by ALP and Greens negotiators. You got the impression that Gillard and Brown, the leaders who will control the new Senate, were moving forward to a new era of political deal-making.
Abbott was nowhere to be seen.
This article first appeared on The Drum.