by Malcolm Farnsworth
After Kevin Rudd’s return to the prime ministership on June 27, and throughout July, I told anyone who asked that I thought the electoral psychology of Rudd’s revival wasn’t clear. I wanted to wait until the end of July to see what the polls revealed.
It seems clear now that the country breathed a sigh of relief that Gillard was gone. The electorate was also prepared to give Rudd a chance to show his stuff. There was a general sense of excitement that we now had a contest.
But it’s also clear now that the increased ALP vote was probably lapsed/disappointed/appalled/outraged/hopeful Labor voters returning to the fold.
Opinion polls now show consistently that swinging voters who deserted the ALP two years ago are staying away. Today’s Newspoll puts the Coalition’s lead at 54-46, a figure that is roughly the average of the past two years.
The spate of polls in marginal seats over the past few days are devastating for the ALP. Whether it’s Forde, Brisbane, Dobell, Robertson, Banks, Lindsay, Aston or Corangamite, amongst others, it’s clear that a mighty vote against the government is looming on September 7.
It isn’t really a surprise. I could never find the seats that the ALP needs to pull off a spectacular re-election. The polls briefly had the parties running neck-and-neck but that only lasted a couple of weeks as a fair-minded citizenry paused to see what Rudd would do.
Now the brutal reality of the election is laid bare: It has always been difficult to believe that any genuine swinging voter would turn to the ALP in this election.
Leaving aside the noise and irrelevance of most of the media’s political coverage, one thing stands out. This has been a government wracked by ongoing crisis in key policy areas, political strategy and leadership.
From the Budget to asylum seekers, the achievements of the government have been overshadowed by its failures. Competence is a key concern for many voters.
Regardless of who you blame and how you write your character assessments of Gillard and Rudd, it is a government that has been wracked by division, constant leadership speculation and a series of leadership upheavals. Today’s Cabinet bears little resemblance to the one that was sworn in on September 14, 2010. Any sensible assessment of the government sees it as unstable and unpredictable.
If Gillard was a disaster, Rudd is inadequate. Between them, they have led a government that has been much less than the sum of its parts. It is a government so lacking in political skills as to be beyond belief.
In retrospect, it is clear the election was lost in early 2011. In February that year, Gillard announced the carbon pricing system and then ceded all of her political ground to Abbott. She accepted the view that she was introducing a “carbon tax”. She vacated the political playing field for nearly five months whilst the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee met in camera to thrash out the details. Tony Abbott barnstormed the country and won the political debate. Trust in Gillard was destroyed. The climate change issue became a negative for the government. It was all downhill for the next two years.
After Rudd’s defeat in his leadership challenge of February 2012, I incorrectly believed he would never return to the job. In the end, the cataclysmic defeat that Gillard’s leadership portended persuaded enough members of the caucus to remove her.
But it now seems clear that bringing Rudd back two months before the election was never really going to work.
Put simply, the government has been unelectable for a long time. It is difficult to mount a convincing argument for its re-election. It isn’t credible to believe the electorate will return it.
It is a government now paying the price for its mediocrity, the logical outcome for a party that has withered from within, its desiccated membership outgunned by the union-based factional cliques that still run the party as a job placement agency for the favoured few.
The disconnection of the party from the real world can be seen in the other great constant of the past four years: the ongoing and obsessive misreading of Tony Abbott. A bizarre mixture of fear and dismissiveness, the Abbott factor has now become the final pillar of the government’s campaign.
We’ll soon see how the anti-Abbott advertising onslaught launched last night will play out. So far there’s no evidence to indicate the ALP has the slightest idea of how to put Abbott under pressure.
As in the final stage of the 2010 campaign, the ALP might benefit from three weeks of a companion campaign on jobs, health and education, its traditional areas of strength.
All the same, it was a somewhat pathetic spectacle last week to see Rudd embracing the nuttiness of long-discredited ideas of “developing the north”, although it may have ensured Bob Katter’s preferences. But throwing half a billion dollars of pork from the never-never beyond the forward estimates at the car industry in Adelaide over the weekend showed how piecemeal is the ALP’s strategy.
The government’s campaign may work to some extent and it remains possible that a major blunder by one side could make the election turn. The ground war also matters, as the weekend’s preference decisions demonstrate.
But let’s not kid ourselves too much. It’s over.
The marginal seat polling of the past few days shows that the ALP is in serious trouble. Seats that Rudd was supposed to save – “the furniture” – are now back in contention.
For instance, in New South Wales, Chris Bowen in McMahon is still in trouble. Jason Clare clings to a narrow lead in Blaxland. Lindsay is gone for all money. There’s talk of Kingsford Smith falling. There’s no sign in the polls that Dobell, Robertson, Reid or Banks are safe. Only a disastrous Liberal candidate in Greenway offers any hope for the ALP. We’ve had no polls from Eden-Monaro or Richmond but you have to wonder what’s happening in those regional areas.
In Victoria, seats thought saved are now back in the mix. Keep your eye on Chisholm, Bruce, Isaacs, McEwen and Bendigo. The JWS poll in Aston shows the Liberals on 63%, an indication of what’s likely happening in neighbouring Deakin and La Trobe.
In Queensland, Peter Beattie confronts a poll showing the Liberal incumbent in Forde well ahead on 60%. Teresa Gambaro is polling well in Brisbane. Those six or seven seats Rudd was supposed to be winning seem to have evaporated. And does anyone seriously think regional seats will fall when even Brisbane is so hostile?
Reports out of Tasmania suggest a bad result for Labor. Bass and Braddon seem shaky. In South Australia and Western Australia, the prospect of gains are few. There are more seats at risk.
It’s got so much harder again. The ALP confronts an electoral Sisyphus.
Whereas Gillard looked like losing between 30 and 40 seats, Rudd looks like he’s going to lose 20 or more.
Most of this year has been politically surreal. An air of unreality has surrounded most government pronouncements. It now seems certain that the major political decisions of 2013 are still to come.