The election campaign is still about these two men
As Tony Abbott pressed the flesh at a community morning tea in suburban Melbourne on Wednesday, there was a moment of delightful candour.
“If I don’t win this election I’ll have to leave the country,” he told a well-wisher. “I’d be the world’s greatest pariah.”
Just a couple of hours after that, Julia Gillard fired the starter’s gun for the longest campaign in Australian history with her announcement that polling day will be September 14.
And the pressure on Abbott immediately increased because he knows that the election is seen as his to lose.
Gillard’s slim survival hopes rest almost entirely on public misgivings about the Liberal leader.
But Abbott is doing something clever.
He is harnessing the popularity of rival Malcolm Turnbull - the man he deposed as Liberal leader - to maximise his chances of avoiding pariah status.
There is still some speculation about Turnbull as a possible challenger if Abbott stumbles.
But he featured prominently alongside the Coalition leadership team in those TV commercials launched last weekend as part of Abbott’s mini-campaign. And he will play an important role in the campaign proper.
Which raises the question of why Gillard does not try to cash in on Kevin Rudd’s popularity to enhance her own prospects of remaining in The Lodge.
Labor starts this marathon election campaign behind in the polls, facing the loss of formerly heartland seats in NSW, and with the Craig Thomson affair and a NSW corruption inquiry set to produce plenty of damaging headlines.
The dramatic arrest of Thomson on a string of fraud charges showed how naïve Gillard was in believing the election announcement would elevate policy debate above scandal and other distractions.
She needs all the help she can get. Including from the most popular Labor politician in the country.
Commercial television producers, dependent on ratings for their success, understand popularity, so it is significant that Rudd returned yesterday to the Seven Network’s Sunrise program.
He replaced Tony Burke, who has filled the weekly “Big Guns of Politics” breakfast TV slot opposite shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey for the last two years.
Seven dumped Burke because viewers don’t warm to him in the way they do to Rudd. Burke did not engage and interest them as Rudd does.
Despite occasional mutterings of discontent from some of his supporters, Rudd in public is saying all the right things - on Sunrise, for example, defending the PM over naming the election date eight months in advance and mounting a telling attack on Abbott’s pledge to abolish the ‘school kids’ bonus.
Instead of being afraid of Rudd’s popularity, Gillard and those around her should be looking for a way to make it an asset.
Perpetual paranoia about Rudd has Gillard looking insecure. Making use of him would be a demonstration of strength.
And strength, or toughness, more than anything else, is what she is trying to convey.
Her dramatic election announcement was a case in point. So was her “captain’s pick” of Nova Peris to go into the senate as Labor’s first indigenous member of the federal Parliament.
Abbott has a different problem, of course. He wants to soften his image.
Proof of that - if proof was needed - was an email about the drafting of his National Press Club address last Thursday.
In the document, which found its way to a newspaper,the opposition leader told staff he wanted enough personal stories in the speech to have commentators saying: “Yes, he is a good bloke.
This clearly took precedence over enhancing the coalition’s policy credentials.
Abbott is trying to shake off the thuggish persona he has developed over the years and which is now seen as a liability.
Gillard, on the other hand, is not making much effort at all to conceal her inner thug. She is more inclined to shine a light on it.
There was no subtlety or sympathy when, to make way for Peris to be installed by Labor’s national executive as number 1 on the party’s Northern Territory senate ticket, Gillard unceremoniously sacked the incumbent Trish Crossin.
Crossin was summoned to The Lodge where the PM told her coldly that she was out. She could resign from the senate immediately, or stick around until the election, but her career was over.
Talking to friends later, Crossin described the PM’s manner as “Lathamesque” - an interesting comparison, given that Gillard was one of Mark Latham’s rusted-on backers.
Because Crossin is a Rudd supporter, doubt was cast over the prime minister’s motives in the elevation of Peris. The election announcement, too, was seen through the prism of the Gillard-Rudd rivalry, to the prime minister’s disadvantage.
With the campaign on, the government can no longer afford this kind of distraction. Rudd is not the threat to Gillard he once was.
And Labor needs his popularity a lot more than Sunrise does.
Laurie Oakes is political editor for the Nine Network.
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