JULESGLASSES is now a Twitter account, of course.

JULESGLASSES is now a Twitter account, of course. And who could the glasses be watching? Opposition Leader Abbott, obviously. The better to see you with, Tony.

On Friday morning the gaze was also on Kevin Rudd, who was back on Seven's Sunrise, teamed with his old sparring mate Joe Hockey, cabinet minister Tony Burke having got the heave-ho.

Earlier Rudd had tweeted about his YouTube video showing him, dressed in a dark suit, lifting weights (27.5 kilograms) before going to the TV studio. As election year opens amid drama and crisis, with players hanging out for opinion polls like addicts for drugs, and hope, fear and desperation all around, even the ludicrous gets a look in.

The short-sighted Prime Minister has decided to (mostly) ditch her contact lenses, once famously swallowed by now Trade Minister Craig Emerson when he took a swig of water in the early hours. He and Julia Gillard were partners at the time. Gillard, who has had trouble with current partner Tim Mathieson's loose lips this week, wasn't too pleased when Craig shared the lenses joke with a journalist.

It's only a minor stretch to see the Gillard glasses - there is also a swish prescription pair for sunwear - as another part of her pitch as a leader taking control, doing things her way, looking herself.

They were put on show the day she threw away convention and gave us a firm election date, more than 200 days ahead of time. "Look at me," those glasses said. "I'm the ranga who dares."

Neither would like the comparison, but John Howard and Julia Gillard have more than a little in common - notably their tough, determined, never-say-die attitude even when the spectre of political death hangs over them.

Gillard is coming through as having a coherent election-year strategy that she thinks can get her through. She may be a brilliant actor, or someone who understands that when your back is against the wall, it's dangerous to ever countenance losing. Those around her, however, insist she thinks that, despite everything, she can win.

She's the traveller caught in a fierce storm (much of it her own making, her critics would say) but she now has a compass at least.

Her election-date announcement aims to inject as much stability as she can into the political situation. It limits the opposition's ability to fan a fresh campaign for an early election. This would have been a temptation for the Coalition when Craig Thomson's Thursday arrest on 150 charges threw another bombshell into federal politics.

The latest Thomson development is terrible news for Labor, a further episode in a saga of sleaze and union and political corruption. So, to a lesser extent, is the coming court case against Peter Slipper, the Coalition defector whom Labor stupidly and disgracefully embraced. When Abbott talks about Gillard's bad judgment, these are first-class examples.

(And a revival of that old AWU scandal - involving her then boyfriend Bruce Wilson - surely can't be far away.)

But Gillard can do nothing about what happens now with either Thomson or Slipper.

Given the slow progress of the law, it is expected Thomson will be in his seat until the election. Beyond that the issue is academic.

The government's survival and its ability to operate effectively until September 14 depend on retaining the presence and support of enough crossbenchers. There are so many moving parts in play that it's always dangerous to be categoric, but Labor seems safe to make the distance. Apart from the situations of Thomson and Slipper, the key independents are calm.

As she tries to put the focus on "governing", Gillard's themes are clear: jobs, opportunity, fairness. An industry statement this month will give more flesh to the jobs pitch (and there will be shades of Barack Obama's campaigning). The Gonski school reforms and the National Disability Insurance Scheme are flagbearers for "opportunity".

Gillard, like Abbott, will talk endlessly about a plan because that's what those in the focus groups want. The umbrella over everything must be economic responsibility. The government boasts about the structural savings to come. Some pain is seen to bring political gain. But it likes to have things both ways, too. When Abbott this week confirmed he would scrap the Schoolkids Bonus, Labor saw a weak point.

If Gillard wins on September 14, Abbott would be seen, like his one-time boss John Hewson, as losing the unlosable election.

Looking ahead, several key points stand out. First, the polls show Labor ended 2012 in much better shape than it entered it. The improvement was relative: both the Nielsen poll published in The Age and Newspoll published in The Australian showed the Coalition still leading in the December quarter by 52 per cent to 48, on a two-party basis.

But 15 months earlier, the Coalition had led by 59-41 in the Nielsen polls, averaged out over the quarter, and by 57-43 in Newspoll.

Second, if that trend continues over 2013, then Labor would win. If it reverses, then the Coalition would steam home.

No one can know what might lie ahead. At this point in 2001, the polls suggested John Howard was finished. Then, apart from an improving economy, came the Tampa affair and the September 11 attacks. In early 2004, Mark Latham had a big poll lead over Howard, but in the October election, Howard won comfortably.

Third, voters often use federal elections to punch their state governments. Since the last federal election, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory have all seen Labor governments go and the Coalition governments that have taken over have started to lose popularity.

Newspoll figures show that over the past year, the Coalition has lost ground in every state - above all in Victoria where, in two-party terms, the Baillieu government's average support fell from 54 per cent in the second half of 2011 to 47 per cent in the second half of 2012.

In NSW and Queensland, the Coalition governments remain well ahead, but their lead has narrowed sharply. The exception is Western Australia - heading to a state election next month - where Premier Colin Barnett has been able to maintain his dominance.

How those Coalition state governments fare in 2013 could have a significant influence on how their states vote on September 14.

Fourth - and very importantly - Labor will need to pick up seats in net terms if it is to win a third term. Usually an embattled government can at least get some protection from a buffer. The Gillard government's tenuous support base now includes the seats held by Slipper (a Coalition electorate) and Thomson (where the ALP in 2010 had just a modest margin), and country independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor.

Windsor might have a chance of hanging on, but at least three of those seats are likely to go to the Coalition.

That alone would shift the balance to an Abbott government.

Moreover, Labor holds many of its seats by small margins. In Victoria, where in 2010 it won its highest vote since World War II - 55.3 per cent after preferences - it holds Corangamite by 0.3 per cent on the new boundaries, Deakin by 0.6 per cent, and La Trobe by 1.7 per cent. Nationally, 25 of its seats are held by margins of less than 6 per cent. And that does not include its seats in Tasmania, now in recession, where the Liberals hope to regain Bass (6.7 per cent) and Braddon (7.5).

So where could Labor make the gains that it would need? At the 2010 election, the Coalition won 21 seats out of 30 in Queensland, and 12 out of 15 in WA. That was its highest vote in Queensland since 1996 and, in WA, its best since 1977. But on recent polling, it could struggle to hold all those seats, eight of which are held by margins of less than 3 per cent.

The fifth factor is the crucial role of NSW. Ten of Labor's 20 most marginal seats are in that state, as are the seats held by Windsor and Oakeshott. It is no exaggeration to say that the election outcome will be decided there.

And whereas the Newman government's cuts have been the big story in Brisbane, the big story in Sydney right now is the corruption investigation into former right-wing Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, whose family is accused of having made many millions by using inside information on coal leases obtained from a Labor minister.

The question is how many NSW voters, who have already trashed Labor in the state election, will still have their baseball bats in hand when Gillard comes calling.

The biggest thing going for Labor seems to be the doubt in many voters' minds about Abbott. "I have quite a healthy self-esteem," Abbott told the National Press Club on Thursday. "I can live with the fact that not everyone likes me."

He won't change the dislike in the near future, especially among women. But he knows he must convince voters that as PM he would be competent, and not threatening. No wonder he is in no hurry to release his industrial relations policy; Labor's scare campaign might even dwarf the misogyny attack.

The credibility of the opposition's financial numbers will be vital for Abbott; his expenditure review committee has been working this week. The Coalition is getting the new Parliamentary Budget Office to do quite a lot of work on its policies. The more it relies on this neutral and respectable office, which has only just started operating, the less room the government will have to claim big holes.

One of Abbott's achievements has been to keep his team united. Breakouts have been very limited; even his critics in the party are staying in line.

In public appeal, Abbott's greatest asset on his frontbench is Malcolm Turnbull. Although as leader Turnbull had all sorts of problems and eventually couldn't hold things together, he is popular and has special appeal for swinging Labor voters, whom Abbott needs. His suave and cerebral style is all that Abbott's isn't.

Abbott has cottoned on to the fact he needs Turnbull, who has been elevated to a front-row role in the Liberals' mini-campaign material. Launching that campaign, and again at the National Press Club, Abbott went out of his way to praise Turnbull.

He also appears to have been influenced by Turnbull on broadband, saying these days that a Coalition government would not scrap that part of the national network that it inherited. He used to be much more hard line.

Gillard has a parallel potential asset who could assist her immensely. But while the man who lost his leadership to Abbott is now helping to push his leader's cart, the former PM who was politically assassinated by Gillard still looks for the opportunity to take back the reins. Unless there is a plunge in the polls, Gillard has Rudd at bay. But she doesn't have him where she needs him - which is actively working at her side - and she never will.

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