Same old rabble or game-changer?

What does the second coming of Kevin Rudd mean for Tony Abbott and the Coalition? While they will not admit it publicly, fear has risen on the Coalition side since the dramatic knifing of Julia Gillard.

What does the second coming of Kevin Rudd mean for Tony Abbott and the Coalition? While they will not admit it publicly, fear has risen on the Coalition side since the dramatic knifing of Julia Gillard.

Can Rudd really turn an election that seemed in the bag on its head? Would Abbott's support in the electorate suddenly by exposed as soft when measured against a new/old opponent?

Certainly Abbott has reasons to be concerned but he also has reasons for continued confidence. After all, it was his relentless pressure on Rudd that saw the latter's stellar poll ratings turn south in 2010, and in turn saw Labor MPs tear down their prime minister.

But this is Rudd Mark II. More consultative and more deliberative, according to his self-assessment. Within Abbott's inner circle, there is an acceptance that the game has now changed, perhaps markedly.

Even so, Rudd's elevation was hardly a shock to the conservative ranks. It is why the ever-focused Abbott had regularly warned his troops against hubris - against the kind of looseness that creeps into any side when the pressure's off.

Not that he hasn't occasionally succumbed to it himself, such as a recent slip on live radio when he admitted to having given thought to a victory speech. He subsequently added that he had also contemplated a concession speech.

Abbott's approach is to double-down on his depiction of Labor as the same old disorganised rabble.

Labor has had two leaders, five cabinet shuffles and six small business ministers in three years, he said on Friday. "Does anyone think that Australia should have another three years like the last three years?" he said.

The Coalition was about stability and cohesion, as well as experience. In the shadow cabinet, 16 frontbenchers were ministers in the Howard government. "Labor can't talk about their first-term record because they got rid of Kevin Rudd and they can't talk about their second-term record because they got rid of Julia Gillard," he said.

"But they can't really talk about the future either because under Labor, you never know what the future holds ... In 2007, the Australian people voted for Kevin and got Julia. In 2010 they voted for Julia and got Kevin. Who knows if people vote Labor in 2013 who we will end up with? It is just a lottery."

The Liberals had long ago prepared advertising highlighting comments by fellow Labor ministers about Rudd's deficiencies after he was toppled as leader in 2010 and during his first failed attempt to wrest the leadership back last year.

Some of those who made harsh remarks against Rudd remain in his cabinet, adding to the poignancy of their comments. Environment Minister Tony Burke, for example, said: "The stories that were around of the chaos, of the temperament, of the inability to have decisions made - they are not stories."

Liberal sources told Fairfax Media the campaign against Rudd Labor will be built around similar pillars as the case against Gillard, but even sharper.

"Essentially it'll be arguing that we're the adults in the room, we're strong, we're united, and we can deliver certainty," one revealed. "Certainty is absolutely crucial; it's the big thing coming through from voters right now and it had everyone focusing on September 14, [and] now Rudd's taken that off the table as well."

"There's a real hunger from ordinary voters to end this circus," the MP said.

Liberals say the uncertainty has actually increased as a result of Rudd's return. "There's uncertainty over the election timing, carbon pricing, and even who is to lead Labor next - who are the faceless men going to turn to after the election? - voters have even less idea of the future now."

Abbott's critique of Rudd Mark II is not likely to be that different from the case against Rudd Mark I. Liberals say there is only one reason Labor turned back to Rudd and that was polling, yet, they also point out, Abbott made serious inroads into Rudd's popularity the first time, which was why he was dumped in 2010.

"The case against Labor in 2010 was mostly based on Rudd," said one Abbott confidant. "That was that Labor was basically all talk, no action. It was Rudd, remember, who was going to fix hospitals, address the greatest moral challenge of our time [in climate change], end the dreaded double drop-off for parents, and effect an education revolution."

If Rudd Mark I came to be unfavourably measured against the overly ambitious goals he had set, the danger for Rudd Mark II lay in the eerie parallels with the failed Gillard experiment.

She had promised solutions to the three big dilemmas plaguing Rudd: the mining super profits tax, the carbon price, and the running sore of asylum seekers.

All three remain political problems, and thanks substantially to Rudd-era policy changes, the last of these, the problem of irregular boat arrivals, has worsened considerably.

Already, the Coalition has sharpened its attack on this front. In his rallying speech to campaign staff and Liberal Party apparatchiks on Friday, Abbott focused intently on asylum seeker policy.

"No serious country can allow itself to be played for mugs by people smugglers and that is what has happened to our country over the last five years, thanks to the decisions taken in the first place by the recycled Prime Minister," he said. "I'm not being negative, I'm simply being factual when I say Kevin Rudd is the best friend the people smugglers have ever had."

He said Rudd, who in his first stint as Prime Minister softened the tough border protection policies put in place by predecessor, John Howard, had revived people smugglers' business model.

"This is a man who is simply clueless when it comes to stopping the boats and restoring Australia's pride and self-respect," he said.

Abbott also accused Rudd of being beset by "frustration and bitterness" for the past three years, "before dragging down the first female prime minister the country has had one night and the next day saying there must be an end to bad blood and bitterness".

Rudd, he added for good measure, was an egomaniac. "News flash, Kevin. It is not all about you."

Now, with boats arriving at the rate of more than three a week, voters are increasingly animated by the issue. It has become a defining one in many Labor heartland seats, particularly in western Sydney.

The signals coming from Rudd Mark II are now that there will be no lurch to the left. Indeed, he may even lurch to the right when he unveils his new asylum seeker policy.

Rudd's former chief media adviser, Lachlan Harris, believes Rudd's success in lifting Labor's vote will turn almost singularly on whether he can blunt Abbott's effective "stop the boats" promise, starting from his scheduled talks with the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, next Friday.

"He's good at using the international stage to change the domestic debate. I wouldn't be surprised if you see something through that Indonesian trip - an attempt to do that," Harris told the ABC.

"If the question on election day is: 'Who's gonna stop the boats?' Rudd's lost. Don't even turn up on polling day; it's all over."

Perhaps tellingly, Rudd has yet to confirm whether he will go to Jakarta next week. He is waiting to hear back from officials as to whether progress is being made on initiatives being negotiated between officials from both countries before the meeting.

Rudd has sought to depict Abbott as the most extreme right-wing political leader the Liberal Party has ever thrown up; it may be effective but it is hardly accurate.

In fact, inside the Liberal Party the muttered concerns go to fears of an Abbott closer in inclination to the DLP and conservatism than to free-market fundamentalism. There, they note his generous paid parental leave scheme that relies on an increase in the tax rate for large companies, his "direct action" plan for climate change that is far less market-driven than Labor's ETS, and his ongoing promotion of the welfare state through increased household payments.

"Abbott is no extremist," said one of his MPs, who admits he took some time to be convinced. "When he talks about the politics of the 'sensible centre', he means it."

Related Articles