Abbott is preying on Rudd's crusade

Tony Abbott's 'small target strategy' will keep the spotlight on Labor as it consumes itself with Kevin Rudd and the innards of leadership. For Julia Gillard, public policy and long-term goals will make little difference.

The political hysteria was palpable.

For days last week, we were subjected to pages of poll-based adjective-driven character assessment of Julia Gillard. The broadsheets outdid the tabloids. Commentary replaced news as invisible Labor Party "sources” sprinted into headlines and copy.

It was the beltway at its purest.

And to top it off those angels of pure public policy, the lamentable Greens, cut and ran – but only in words, not deed. It was a rare moment of relief for Julia Gillard.

In the midst of this confection Tony Abbott was sensibly tucked away in policy-free 'cryogenic storage', although he made a brief cameo to again point to "chaos” running through government, and remind Australians that he would "stop the boats” and kill off the carbon tax and the MRRT.

It’s smart politics.

The rule is simple: as best you can, make sure the light is shining on the other side as they become consumed with their innards.

In what’s known as "the small target strategy” the idea is to get past each day and week in the election campaign – and that’s what we’re in – without stumble or even a smattering of incidental fireworks. And above all, don’t give real answers to questions.

John Howard showed how it was done in 1996 when he ran a disciplined and "aspirational” campaign against a long standing ALP government – nothing too detailed, costed or specific. It worked a treat – a bit of complaining from the side, but no-one cared.

The current election campaign has another 27 weeks to run. The coming weeks will be still consumed with Julia Gillard’s leadership for three simple, unavoidable reasons: the gathering of politicians in one place, public opinion and the commercial needs of fracturing media organisations.

Every time Gillard or a minister fronts an interview, an event, a launch, a community gathering or a new policy release (even a cure for cancer) eager young journalists with branded microphones will ask and re-ask the inevitable questions about that week’s opinion poll and leadership. Cable TV is a non-stop pit-stop of leadership thought bubbles.

And the full-time pundits climb aboard, outdoing each other with spectacular and over-reaching opinion, and anguish about what Gillard and Kevin Rudd are really thinking.

Since the New Year there have been around 16 published polls on federal politics – all have asked questions about Gillard, Rudd, Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.

As we know, they tell a converging story. The electorate have made up their minds about the government and the prime minister. They may not love the alternative but their vote will be about the government, not the Opposition.

These polls lead to an avalanche of reporting, commentary and pious editorials that refer to national calamity enveloping us. According to the colourful Fairfax website last week, Gillard is "a dead woman walking”. We could tell from the accompanying photograph.

We hear from bloggers and ALP supporters that Australia has survived the GFC in robust shape, that we have grown as an economy from the 15th to the 12th largest, that fundamentals are strong, debt and taxes are low and that we are envied around the world.

That may be true, but the punters are cynical. They don’t trust the messengers or the brand. They believe the tabloids. A cabbie told me this week that he’d be voting for Mr Abbott so we would finally get rid of Australia’s debt.

What can be reasonably gleaned from this noise is that whatever Julia Gillard has shaped in the way of new public policy or long-term goals – and her strident appeals to her political base – will make little or no difference to the election outcome.

For the Canberra beltway there is only one story: will she survive, and how will that happen and what next?

Kevin says he’s not interested in challenging or leading again. He says he had his chance. But he will keep campaigning, by invitation. His anonymous supporters point to the polls, especially in Queensland. His detractors point to the deadly TV campaign that the Liberals will run if he returns – spoken and authorised by ALP ministers.

The faceless men who have a face and a voice – people like Bill Shorten and David Feeney – show no sign of backing away from their support for Gillard. Some "sources” say that since the last leadership contest some numbers have move Gillard’s way, others have moved Kevin’s way.

So the media hours drag into days, and the days into weeks.

Like every pundit, I’ve got no idea of the likely outcome, other than the noise and heat will ramp up to new heights as parliament re-assembles and party rooms meet. (Although I’d be prepared to have a decent bottle of Barolo with Bob Gottliebsen that it won’t be the GG’s son-in-law who takes over soon – see Why Shorten can be Labor's next PM, February 21).

I do know that if Julia survives we will go to the polls on September 14 and elect Tony. If she is tapped there will probably be an earlier election – with the same result.

What will be occupying the Labor Party in either scenario is not so much this result, but 2016 and beyond. They can’t afford a train wreck or a massacre. They’ll have to make do with a calamity. In either case, re-generation beckons.

And what will be consuming Tony Abbott – at least in public – will be that he gives no reason whatsoever for the bright and unerring light to move away from where it now shines.

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