Polls have changed, but Labor hasn't
Am I the only person to be amazed by the way - if the polls are to be believed - the swapping of a leader has transformed the Labor government's election prospects from dead in the water to level-pegging?
Is that all it takes? Can the mere replacement of an unpopular woman with a popular man make a world of difference? Does it transform Labor's six-year record in government from disastrous to fair enough?
(Admittedly, Kevin Rudd's reinstatement has been accompanied by a change of faces among senior ministers, but I doubt Labor's miraculous recovery in the polls owes much to that nice Mr Bowen replacing that terrible Mr Swan.)
It's possible Rudd's improvement in the polls won't last but, regardless, we're witnessing a fascinating case study in the power of personality and perception versus policy reality and objectively measured economic performance.
Talk about the triumph of presidential politics. Could the superior TV persona of Rudd count for so much? Does the resurrection of Rudd mean Labor's no longer perceived to have stuffed up the economy? Does the removal of That Woman suddenly throw the spotlight on Tony Abbott's less-than-sparkling TV persona?
(The punters' perceptions of the relative attractiveness of Rudd and Julia Gillard are opposite to those of most of the people who've had personal dealings with the two. And Abbott in the flesh can be charming.)
Until evidence emerges to the contrary, I'm prepared to accept the possibility Rudd is a reformed character. After all, for him to have failed to realise the need for changed behaviour during his years in the political wilderness he would need to be pretty dumb.
And there's precedent for party leaders changing their spots: Bob Menzies (weak in his first stint, masterful in his second) and John Howard (ditto).
What I can't accept is that the restoration of Rudd constitutes any significant change in substance as opposed to packaging; in Labor's policies or its long-established operational strengths and weaknesses.
Has it suddenly acquired the courage of its convictions? Have its ministers gone from being career political apparatchiks to true believers? Has it switched from relying on its spin doctors' chicanery to relying on diligent salesmanship, from its obsession with criticising its opponents to untiring explanation of its policies' merits?
The most obvious demonstration of Rudd's lack of significant policy change is his decision to "abolish" the carbon tax, but replace it with an emissions trading scheme. Really? Abbott is right: whatever you call it, it amounts to a tax (just as his planned "levy" to finance his nanny-subsidising paid parental leave scheme is nothing other than a tax).
Bringing forward the move from a fixed to a floating carbon price by just a year hardly constitutes a radical policy reversal. And even the supposed fall from $24.50 to $6 a tonne in the carbon price may prove smaller than expected if the Europeans act to get their price back to where it's high enough to change behaviour, or even if our dollar falls against the euro.
Rudd's regional resettlement arrangement is unlikely to calm the frenzy over boat people. And it would be surprising if his imminent announcement of a tripartite agreement to put flesh on his seven-point plan to raise productivity proves path-breaking.
Actually, the haste with which he's wheeling out his policy adjustments is reminiscent of Gillard's behaviour after she toppled him: do some quick patch-ups (on carbon, boat people and the mining tax) before rushing to the polls to take advantage of her (as it proved, non-existent) honeymoon with the voters.
And there's another, more worrying parallel with Gillard. She was foolhardy enough to take a Treasury projection of budget surplus many years into the future and elevate it to the status of a solemn promise. When the projection proved astray (as they usually do) she endured several years of searching for real or cosmetic budget savings before being forced to an ignominious admission of failure.
The new Treasurer could have seized the opportunity to step back from the debt-and-deficit trap his predecessor had fallen into, but what did he do? Seized Treasury's latest projection of a return to surplus in more than three years' time (!) and made it a promise. This when the economy has already slowed to less than this year's growth forecast.
If the policy patch-ups keep coming with such haste this week and next, know the announcement of an election date isn't far off. And when you hear the Treasurer is producing an "updated economic and fiscal outlook", know the election announcement is imminent.
The pre-election fiscal and economic outlook documents produced by the econocrats a week or so into the campaign are always immediately preceded by the government's own statement, just so any revisions to the outlook are announced by the pollies, not their bureaucratic servants.
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