Can Rudd's ideas even save the Senate?

As Labor’s fortunes flag, ‘big ideas’ like the turbo-charging of Western Australia will be increasingly tailored towards winning seats in the Senate.

The really interesting thing about this election is not so much who’ll be prime minister in a month’s time, as what kind of Senate is elected on September 7. 

While it would be wrong to argue that Labor cannot retake government, the odds are looking very long indeed – yet more research has been released today to back up the Business Spectator/Torque Data results published on Wednesday (A Rudd-slide in the wrong direction, August 14). 

Fairfax polling shows three out of four key western Sydney seats falling, just a day after a different poll showed two mid-coast New South Wales seats (Dobell and Robertson) collapsing too. 

The western Sydney seats of McMahon (Treasurer Bowen’s seat), Bennelong (which Labor pick Jason Yat-sen Li was supposed to take back) and Peter Garrett’s old seat of Kingsford Smith are in trouble, though home affairs minister Jason Clare is hanging on to Blaxland by a 2 per cent margin, according to the poll. 

So winning a majority in the House of Reps appears to be a fading dream for the increasingly tired and directionless Prime Minister Rudd. 

That could all change, with a major Abbott gaffe or ‘black swan’ event – who knows, perhaps Nauru will launch a land-air-and-sea invasion of Australia; BHP Billiton might close its mines and shift its remaining capital to Gibraltar; or Premier Barnett might announce he’s successfully towed Western Australia outside our territorial waters to claim independence. 

But short of these, it’s hard to see what will turn back Rudd’s flagging fortunes. 

‘Underdog’ Rudd is casting about for major themes on which to defeat Abbott, having tried to match or defuse the Abbott agenda point by point. 

The most recent attempt to neutralise a Coalition policy is Labor’s plan to “turbo-charge” northern Australia, including cutting company tax rates by up to a third. Rudd says he can do this easily enough for the Northern Territory (yes, he can), but Colin Barnett (suddenly paddling back towards the mainland) says he’s sure Rudd would find the constitutional powers to do it right across the top end. 

Labor’s answer to the Coalition’s plan to develop the north is really a bit of sandbagging. Labor suspected, and was confirmed in those suspicions yesterday, that Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, and Katter’s Australia Party, will exchange preferences in the lower house. Their exact preference flows in the Senate are not yet known, but Labor’s northern plan, as well as appealing to some southern, urban voters, aims to prevent Palmer and Katter taking away too much of the senate vote in Queensland and Western Australia.  

The other big idea is Labor’s assertion that its extra $500 million in car-industry subsidies makes this election a “referendum on the car industry” – the Coalition plans to cut $500 million from support for the ailing industry. Actually, this is much more important to Australia’s economic progress than the carbon tax, so this claim is no sillier than Abbott’s assertion that this election is a “referendum on the carbon tax”. 

If these ideas – or whatever big idea Labor pulls out of its sleeve next – fail to gain traction, then the Rudd revival won’t work, and Abbott will rule with a strong lower-house majority. 

Then all eyes will be on the Senate. South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon says he will preference Liberal and Labor before the Greens – quite probably meaning Sarah Hanson-Young will be knocked out of parliament – and Katter and Palmer have been horse trading Queensland brumbies with the major parties for their Senate preferences. 

‘Saving the furniture’, which the party saw as Rudd’s main task, meant retaining those key western Sydney and central coast seats. But as that project slides towards the realms of impossibility, ‘saving the Senate’ might be the best Rudd and his strategists can hope for. 

And does Rudd really care about that? Saving Julia Gillard’s carbon pricing scheme, shoring up her legacy, while his own political career is finished forever? We’ll just have to wait and see how much this race is about Labor, and how much is about Kevin Rudd.

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