The panic plaguing Labor

Rudd's entry into the campaign demonstrates the extent of the anxiety that plagues the entire Labor Party. Until it overcomes this affliction, the party's knee-jerk responses to conflict will persist.

Crikey.com

Yesterday Andrew Robb put out a press release calling Kevin Rudd's return "Labor's third panic attack".

I don't know if Rudd's entry into the campaign can accurately be described as a panic attack but Robb's right on the broader point: this is a panicky Labor Party, one inclined to jump at its own shadow.

Kevin Rudd was turfed out because his last days-of-the-Fuhrer management style could no longer be tolerated in light of his falling polling numbers. It was an act of panic. Rudd hadn't come near to plumbing the depths of unpopularity reached by John Howard in his first term.

One of the reasons for his falling polling numbers was another act of panic, to ditch the CPRS in the face of a concerted campaign from Tony Abbott. Abbott convinced Labor it might lose a CPRS-based election, when all the evidence is it would have won handily. It was the first example of Abbott's canny out-thinking of Labor.

There was an air of panic, too, about the enormous rush Julia Gillard was in to get to an election, based on cobbling together quick fixes on the RSPT and asylum seekers before she raced to Yarralumla, then rushing out a half-baked idea for a 'citizens' assembly' to provide the leadership on climate change that she and the backroom boys like Mark Arbib refused to.

It's no wonder that, at the halfway mark of the campaign, the Labor strategy looks in disarray. This is an outfit with no resilience, no capacity to stick to a plan, a party always on the lookout for a 'circuit breaker' or 'game changer' to save its bacon.

Let's not forget that it began the campaign with a decent lead in all the major polls, and up to 10 points in some. It couldn't have done anything about the leak last week, to be sure, and it at least got Julia Gillard fired-up. But Labor looks like it had a strategy to sit on its lead till polling day, and when its lead vanished from underneath it, it was rattled and lacked a plan B.

Campaigning capacity tends to go in cycles. The Hawke government developed its political campaigning tools to a high art, particularly its marginal seat and preferences strategies. They kept it in office even in 1990, when it secured fewer first-preference votes than the Coalition. In opposition, the once-formidable Labor machine fell behind the Liberals, who developed a highly successful electoral strategy based on pork-barrelling, appealing to carefully targeted sections of the electorate with xenophobia and ruthlessly using the power of incumbency.

'Kevin 07', one of the most effective opposition campaigns in recent Australian political history, should have restarted that cycle over. Instead, NSW Labor's tendency to panic has infected the entire party.

Much of this has been blamed on Bob Carr, but Carr provided stability and basic managerial competence in NSW, albeit with the aid of a succession of duds for Opposition leader. It is the collapse of the NSW Labor machine over the last five years that has been the gangrene infecting the rest of the Labor body, including the downgrading of the parliamentary leadership -- once the greatest honour the labour movement could bestow – to a sort of pass-the-parcel toy.

Turning to Kevin Rudd probably isn't quite the panic move that Robb suggests. Labor had no real choice, and never did once Rudd decided he wanted to stay in politics and wanted to be a minister. That meant he was always going to be a significant presence in the campaign, no matter what he did, primarily because the press gallery can't leave the issue alone. Getting him out on the campaign trail makes a virtue of necessity.

Throughout it all, Tony Abbott has stuck to the basics, relentlessly hammering the government, talking about cost-of-living issues, exploiting the media focus on Labor to avoid scrutiny of his own problems, sticking to a simple plan of keeping the differences with Labor to a minimum except where he wants to draw a stark contrast. It's the essence of the 'Kevin07' plan, and made all the more effective by Labor's seeming inability to really target Abbott's flakiness.

The Liberals are well-placed to win, but there's two whole weeks to go and that's an eternity. The 1998 election wasn't won by the Coalition until the morning of polling day, when the Daily Telegraph ran its "Labor to seize power" headline. This one looks similarly close.

Bernard Keane is Crikey's Canberra correspondent. This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on August 6.