Rudd must call a snap election – or face Turnbull

Faced with the Rudd renaissance and a neck-and-neck battle, it's only a matter of time before Coalition MPs turn towards Malcolm Turnbull – and almost guaranteed victory.

If Prime Minister Rudd is not smart enough to call an election next week, it's likely his party will spend a long time in the wilderness waiting for Prime Minister Turnbull to mess things up.

Yes, that’s right – Prime Minister Turnbull, not Abbott.

If Rudd calls an election next week, to be held in August, there's approximately a 50-50 chance that he will win against Abbott. It is Rudd’s best hope of completing the vengeful campaign he embarked upon shortly after recovering from his surprise ousting by Julia Gillard in 2010.

Importantly, if he wins, it will be the Coalition spending a couple of terms in the wilderness. Although Rudd’s first term in government was marred by his poor leadership skills, there’s every chance that he would lead his team of first-timers (remembering that Labor’s battle-hardened warriors have chosen retirement or backbench oblivion over working with Rudd – Emerson, Combet, Crean and Conroy, to name a few) much more successfully.

But let’s just imagine for a minute that the vaudeville act of current ‘reforms’ of Labor policy, which are being taken far more seriously by journalists than they ought to be, convince Rudd to revel in his newly regained power and wait a month or two before calling the election. What then?

Then Rudd risks his great nemesis, Malcolm Turnbull, being jostled to the front of the Coalition joint-party room and elected as opposition leader.

If that happens, Rudd will lose the election.

There are reasons to think it won’t happen, of course. When Turnbull was defeated in the leadership spill of December 2009 by a single vote, there were just enough Liberals who thought climate change itself, or the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme response to it, were ‘crap’.

Their numbers joined forces with those who saw Turnbull’s leadership errors as being just too great to continue with him in the top job – the Godwin Gretch affair was an embarrassing error of judgement – and many saw him as too capricious, and too hard to pin down in any one of the Liberal Party’s ideological camps.

Of those two groups – the anti-carbon-pricers and the strong-leader-fanciers – the first group will have been weakened by a number of developments in climate change science and policy around the world.

The list of nations or states choosing to price carbon is growing (Europe, five provinces of China, California, South Korea and New Zealand). Furthermore, extreme weather events, though never really able to be pinned on anthropogenic climate change in the short term, continue to underline the fear that that a world population of nine billion people (a common projection for 2050) can’t feed itself if such events do indeed increase in frequency.

Now, many Coalition members will be unmoved by those developments. But many will not. And as the Rudd ‘reforms’ put the word ‘ETS’ into the pages of newspapers, where once it was ‘carbon tax’, their resolve to get rid of carbon pricing for their own bureaucrat-run ‘direct action’ scheme will be weakening.

That means that, should Turnbull simply give one impassioned speech to the party room, a number of people who didn’t like him in 2009 would be tempted to vote for him as leader.

And even for the ‘strong-leader-fanciers’ – and there are a large number who think Abbott has done an exceptional job – new clarity would be brought to their voting decision by recent polls.

Abbott has never been popular with the voting public, and is even less so in comparison to Turnbull according to a JWS poll published in the Fairfax papers.

The poll found that if Abbott were pitted against Rudd, 52 per cent of voters preferred the latter and only 48 per cent Abbott. That’s reasonably close, and was accompanied with a two-party preferred result of a Coalition win, 51 per cent to 49 per cent.

But when asked about a Turnbull-Rudd duel, voters preferred Malcolm over Kevin by an astonishing 65 to 35 per cent. And, according to the same poll, that would be accompanied by a two-party preferred result of 58-42 in favour of the Coalition. That’s a landslide.

So if we picture Turnbull swaggering to the front of the party room with that faintly ironic smirk he sometimes wears (Turnbull's smile that wins, September 2012), and giving a passionate, witty, urbane speech to the party room on 'what I can do for you', it’s not hard to see why, even in the absence of a ‘Turnbull camp’, he could walk out with Abbott's job.

If that argument were not convincing enough, consider how dramatically the Rudd reforms have redrawn the political landscape.

For most of the 43rd parliament, Abbott’s massive power came from two core issues: carbon and boats. A lazy, complicit or thicky-bloody-thicky media industry parroted just about everything Abbott said on these issues, because they made such good headlines.

Both campaigns were driven by the essence of good politics – fear.

There was fear of a ‘big new tax on everything’ – which turned out to be tiny in the CPI and cost-of-living data.

And there was fear of all those would-be terrorists paying gangsters to bring them to Australia in boats (Abbott never used invective containing anything like those terms, but in the world of dog-whistle politics, he didn’t have to).

But the media/political machine has now lurched from one extreme to the other. Rudd doesn’t have a solution on boats or carbon pricing that is substantially different to what Gillard proposed. But that doesn’t matter, as long as the headlines are good.

Rudd is ‘easing the cost of living’ by bringing an ETS forward by a year, but only if you believe best-case assumptions about what the EU carbon price will be in the next couple of years.

And even if those assumption come to pass, it will only save a family on a modest income (a take-home of $875 a week) around $7 per week (The cost of Kevin Kong’s carbon con, July 16).

Likewise on the ‘boats’ issue. At the time of writing Fairfax media is reporting that Rudd will announce a resettlement plan in “third world” nations to change the face of seaborne refugee/migrant policy.

Yup, that’s what the Gillard government tried to do, at least as a trial, via the Oakeshott-amended version of their Malaysia ‘people swap’ deal (granted, Malaysia is far from 'third world'). That was bad policy. But it was the least-bad available at the time and should have been allowed to proceed (see: The boats bill must be allowed to pass, June 2012).

Finally, it’s worth remembering that while Tony Abbott has announced very few policies to date, the Coalition has been through a carefully coordinated policy review process in the past 18 months and has oodles of policy announcements to make that are not simply spur-of-the-moment reactions to opinion polls (unlike the Rudd reforms).

Though the Coalition will not reveal these policies until an election is called, the Liberals and Nationals believe they have a better blueprint for Australia’s future.

And they know that if Rudd wins this election, they might just as well throw that one in the bin and draw up another plan when two or three terms of glorious Rudd rule are nearing their end.

Remember, too, that Rudd's return to the Labor leadership allowed the party to backflip on carbon pricing in a way Gillard could not have done. Abbott has comprehensively painted himself into a corner by promising to repeal every last skerrick of carbon-pricing legislation (except for the 'compensation' to voters) – a dangerous, disruptive and expensive process that only increases business uncertainty. 

Turnbull could perform a similar double-pike with a half-twist by reminding voters 'I've always thought an ETS was the cheapest way to solve this problem' – thereby retaking the high ground on carbon pricing that Rudd has only just captured. 

A few months ago commentators kept repeating the fact that, when push came to shove, Labor MPs would vote for their own jobs in a leadership spill, no matter how much they preferred Gillard over Rudd.

Now, if Rudd fails to call a snap election, he will be giving Liberal and National Party MPs just a bit too long to consider a similar proposition. Turnbull or the wilderness.

In those circumstances, it’s pretty clear which leader would prevail. Rudd’s probably got this weekend to do some quick thinking and send Australians to the polls.