Kevin Rudd's launch was all about political hope against the odds, but Treasurer Chris Bowen’s absence was the measure of electoral reality.
Bowen missed this campaign landmark – with Rudd’s permission – to attend back-to-back church functions in his western Sydney electorate of McMahon.
McMahon’s margin is 7.8 per cent – normally solid, but Bowen is in terrible danger. A JWS Research poll in Saturday's Financial Review had Bowen on 46.9 per cent to the 53.1 per cent of the Liberal candidate, controversial former policeman Ray King.
Bowen, one of Labor’s young high-fliers and a possible future leader, did not need to hear Rudd say that “we are now engaged in the fight of our lives”. He is one of those in the trenches with bullets raining down.
The launch relived earlier Labor glories. Bob Hawke received the great reception to which he has become accustomed. Paul Keating’s ego was boosted when a woman in the crowd called out that he was “easy on the eye”.
Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese revved up the audience with a mixture of easy informality and political punch. “If you want a bloke who can jump through tyres, vote Tony Abbott. If you want a bloke who can guide you through the next financial crisis, vote Kevin Rudd.”
In his speech, Rudd lasered in on the voters Bowen was out trying to court.
His cheap ($268.5 million) packet of promises was all about jobs and small business. He was after the “battlers” who, according to the polls, have hitched their fortunes to Abbott (The guys in the engine room need some clarity, September 2).
Rudd talked not just about jobs as such, but about job security, proposing a new network that would better match those who lost jobs to new opportunities or training.
It’s probably a worthy initiative, and perhaps a necessary one, but it did sound elaborately bureaucratic.
More provocatively, Rudd appeared to be shaping up for a fight on a new front with the states.
Labor says the states must not cut TAFE further and must agree to maintain real growth in it. If they refuse to at least maintain funding in real terms, a Labor government would quarantine part of the money it provides to the states and earmark it specifically for TAFEs.
If the states continued to refuse to guarantee funding, the federal government would fund TAFEs directly.
Eventually, if states sought to frustrate such new arrangements, the federal government would direct its TAFE funding into a new TAFE Australia Network. In other words, it would effectively seek to take over the system.
This seemed very Kevin '07 – back then he said the states must shape up over their hospitals or the Commonwealth would try to take over. That ended in argument and a good many tears before compromise was reached.
The TAFE system is critically important, but it’s questionable whether Rudd is wise to risk stirring up the premiers, who are mostly Liberal, into a fight during the last week of the campaign.
Rudd’s pledge to make business projects worth $300 million or more (down from the present $500 million) adopt Australian Industry Participation Plans is another example of his 'economic nationalism' on the march. It follows his concern last week about foreign investment in Australian land and his announcement to bring forward naval ship building projects to maintain work.
If Rudd’s speech was taken in isolation it could be seen as a strong and spirited effort.
But Labor’s problem is one of context – context of the government’s difficulties and blunders over the last six years, and the context of Rudd’s own history. It is simply not possible for Labor to adequately deal with that past. The slogan of 'a new way' (behind Rudd on the stage) has, all through this campaign, simply brought to mind questions about the 'old way'.
Rudd acknowledged that Labor didn’t always get things right. But his folksy excuse is unlikely to wash with many voters: “As a highly successful migrant who came here after the war told me the other day in Adelaide, ‘Kevin, the only blokes who don’t make mistakes are the blokes who don’t do anything'".
The prime minister sought to link Labor’s current story, through its values, with those of past governments, speaking of “values that built a university system accessible for all under Gough Whitlam; values that built Medicare for all under Bob Hawke; values that built DisabilityCare for all under Julia Gillard; values that built superannuation for all under Paul Keating”.
The acknowledgement of Gillard was tactful and appropriate. But the absence of Gillard, who had said in a statement last week that she would not attend the launch because her presence would just “distract” from Rudd’s message, was more telling than the prime minister's reference.
Rudd told the faithful they should “never, ever, ever, underestimate my fighting spirit … I have been in tougher spots than this before and come back from behind”.
The most notable tough spot from which he has escaped is the backbench. His return just in time to fight this campaign was extraordinary. But to become (as a young kid he quoted today hopes) the “comeback kid” in this election would be beyond extraordinary.