Roll up for the great Rudd referendum

Tony Abbott can lie safe in the knowledge that all other issues this election, including his economic management, will pale in the face of the fact that this is a poll on Kevin Rudd.

Tony Abbott may be under pressure from journalists and pundits to explain in detail how he will fund his major election promises – which in the main are promises he has announced over the past three years as opposition leader – but he is under no pressure from Kevin Rudd to do anything at all.

The PEFO has landed and has caused some excitement among the journalists covering the campaign who all reckon the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Outlook has been long and eagerly awaited because it will force Abbott to reveal detailed costings of his policy initiatives against the backdrop of a slowing economy and uncertain economic times.

Kevin Rudd of course couldn’t wait for PEFO’s release because he fervently hoped it would give him something that would put Abbott under pressure. Economics and the economy might not be Abbott’s greatest strength.

But PEFO will come and go in the blink of an eye, though Abbott will continue to be questioned by journalists about when he will tell Australians how he will pay for his promises and how he will respond to an economy heading into turbulent times.

These are important questions of course and they should be asked but politically speaking Abbott is under no pressure to answer them in any comprehensive way. That’s because this election is not about economic management or any other policy area, but rather, it is a sort of referendum on Kevin Rudd.

PEFO won’t do Rudd any good. Rudd was determined to make this election all about him and he has more or less succeeded. But even for Rudd, who clearly believes he is the centre of something big, this relentless focus on himself is taking a toll. In reality it’s bound to fail, this ‘Rudd as savior’ campaign. This is because what it involves is burying the last six years of Labor governments, during most of which Rudd was prime minister or a senior cabinet minister and, at the same time, a determined revenge seeker against those who had plotted his downfall in 2010.

The past cannot be buried, not for long anyway. The scars are deep. The hatreds long lasting. That the Labor Party has been seriously damaged goes without saying. But the damage to Rudd has been just as serious. Vengeance extracts its toll. The Kevin Rudd of Kevin07 is long gone.

In his place we have the battered and bruised survivor of multiple and very public humiliations and defeats and a return to the prime ministership that involved betrayal and bitterness and the destruction of the careers of senior and talented Labor cabinet ministers.  Not to mention the demise of Australia’s first female prime minister.

In this context, the Rudd slogan for this campaign – A New Way – is a denial of history, a disowning of the past. Ever since he returned to the prime ministership, Kevin Rudd has avoided talking about – owning, that is – the achievements and failings of these past six years of Labor governments. It’s as if those years have disappeared down history’s plughole.  And down the plughole have gone Julia Gillard and Simon Crean and Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy and a host of others who shaped those years of government.

Rudd does mention the fact that he saved Australia from the consequences of the GFC, but that claim is made in a sort historical vacuum in which Rudd alone, single-handedly, rescued Australia from economic disaster. This is a claim that is not believable because on everything else, Rudd wants people to ignore the record of the governments in which he served.

The fact is there is no new way. There is only the old way that Rudd has tried to bury under a mountain of rhetoric and social media games and celebrity appearances at shopping malls and schools and street corners.  But in the end, history can’t be denied for long, not in a liberal democracy anyway.

And not during an election campaign.  It’s not even a matter of Abbott and his colleagues reminding Australians that Rudd has a history and that Labor has been in government for six years and that a few short weeks ago, Julia Gillard was prime minister and under siege from the Rudd forces who were determined to rid themselves of her and install Rudd. He would save them from a landslide defeat.

Rudd won’t save them. He won’t save them, not even from a large defeat, because despite the fact that he eventually convinced enough caucus members to install him as prime minister – bring back Kevin07! – he is wounded and diminished, battle-scarred and weary-looking,  incongruously talking about a new way forward.

Abbott doesn’t really have to worry all that much about those issues raised by the release of the PEFO. It is right and proper for journalists and economists and assorted pundits to ask him to go beyond his talking points and seriously address the economic challenges Australia faces.

He won’t. All Abbott has to do is remain on message – which means endlessly repeating his talking points – and allow Rudd’s campaign to implode.  That is happening.

It is dawning on Rudd and his advisers and those who hoped he would be their savior that the new start slogan isn’t working; that it’s literally unbelievable and that Rudd’s only hope is a return to a bit of old politics. Witness Rudd’s increasingly desperate attacks on Abbott. Witness Rudd’s scare campaign about a coalition government increasing the GST, an increase no-one, not even Rudd, believes Abbott and Joe Hockey will ever implement, at least not in the first term of a coalition government.

Tony Abbott, unlike Rudd, embraces and celebrates the governments in which he served. He has, in many ways, reinvented himself during these past three years as opposition leader.

The old Tony Abbott, the one who was a bit erratic, who was a bit of a thinker and who had interesting and thoughtful things to say but who sometimes said some pretty silly things, that Tony Abbott is no more.

Who knew that Abbott could be so disciplined, so wooden, so damn boring! But Tony Abbott has not denied history and has not repudiated the past. He has not been damaged by it, the way Kevin Rudd has been damaged.

He has history on his side.