Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull loom as dangerous adversaries.
'FRIENDS, the fight is on, it's the fight of our lives, let's get out there and win it," Prime Minister Julia Gillard declared in Queensland yesterday, back at work after the death of her father.
For Gillard the fight is on at a number of levels. You'd think a small but steady rebound in the polls since late May might buy the Prime Minister some time and breathing space and kudos from her colleagues, but politics is a perverse and brutal business.
Camp Rudd has simply shifted the goal posts. After months of saying that "we are on a path to slaughter", now the working rationale is that with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott so unpopular, and with Liberals in the states showing their true colours with job and service cuts, "we could actually win if we get rid of our intractable problem with the voters".
And what intractable problem would that be? The fact that people neither like nor trust the incumbent of The Lodge.
Hurry, hurry, hurry. Time is now of the essence. Rudd supporters suggest the next couple of opinion polls will be crucial. Crucial to what, exactly? To convincing caucus members to switch their allegiance and run over Gillard's Praetorian Guard in the ministry. To persuading them that ministers opposing Rudd's return are past caring about victory exhausted, they are buffing their legacy before a restorative snooze in retirement or opposition.
It's perhaps not widely understood that Camp Rudd hasn't got much time. There are only four weeks between now and the end of the year when both the House of Reps and the Senate are sitting. That means only four weeks when the whole Labor caucus is gathered in Canberra a precondition for a leadership change.
Camp Rudd feels it needs to leverage the next two published poll cycles: this week's Nielsen and Newspoll, and the Newspoll the fortnight after. (Presumably if things get really willing, there's always recourse to that toxic old destabilisation chestnut: leaked party polling.)
So if that's the game we are in (and I'm afraid we are, whether readers want to be or not), what does today's Age/Nielsen tell us?
Labor's primary vote continues to improve it has now risen 2 points a month for four months. Kevin Rudd remains popular when respondents are prompted with a leading question about whether his return to the top job would change their vote, the results suggest Labor's primary vote could rise 10 points to an election-winning position.
Rudd beats Gillard as preferred Labor leader (55 per cent to 37 per cent), but his support has dropped 7 points since the beginning of June. So if voter sympathy for Rudd has peaked, how long would a positive "Rudd effect" actually last? Voters literally split down the middle when asked whether Labor should change leaders, and a majority of Labor and Green voters believe the party should stay with Gillard.
Gillard remains unpopular, but her personal standing has been improving for three months. Today she leads Abbott as preferred prime minister by 3 points. Each camp will spin this poll for their desired candidate.
Perhaps the Rudd camp is right: voters will never fully recover trust in Gillard, and hard-working Labor MPs don't deserve to go out backwards because of her integrity problem. (Exhibit A: a bloke with a 59 per cent disapproval rating is about to win the next federal election. Duh.)
But this is also true. Gillard shows signs of defying the lead in her own saddle bags. That's fact, not conjecture. Left to consolidate without phase . . . whatever . . . of the obsessive and enervating Rudd revenge tragedy, how far could she go?
Now to poor old Tony Abbott. What a messy few weeks.
Free-range Barnaby colliding with Liberals who'd had more than a gutful of the good Senator Joyce and the reflexive populism he personifies. Scrappy media performances. David Marr's Quarterly Essay unleashing a few anecdote-wielding ghosts from 1977. Conservative state governments hacking into services people know and care about. A sense that the Coalition doesn't quite know where to position the carbon price attack post-July 1.
Insult and injury. A newspaper column praises Joe Hockey as having a Clintonesque capacity to connect. Even Peter Costello publicly praised Malcolm Turnbull. Given these two could once barely stand being in the same room, that delicate rapprochement is interesting, to say the least.
Today's Age poll shows Turnbull is the preferred opposition leader (63 per cent to Abbott's 30 per cent). Worse for Abbott, Turnbull is preferred by Coalition voters (53 per cent to 45 per cent). Abbott's approval in this survey is down 3 points, and his disapproval has hit a new record, 59 per cent.
Today's poll, of course, also shows the Coalition would win any election held now, hardly an insignificant point.
But in my view, recent events should prompt Abbott to ask himself the following: Will the current strategy deliver me victory (a different question to whether it will deliver the Coalition victory)? Am I listening to enough people? Am I leaving myself enough room to reposition and nuance? And, am I becoming a prisoner of my negative talking points?
Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent.