The terrible question keeping Ruddites awake

Kevin Rudd's support is lagging as his quick fixes hit speed bumps. His followers must now be asking whether they should have sacrificed Julia Gillard further down the road.

As support for the Labor government ticks down week by week, some of the MPs who voted for Kevin Rudd’s return will be kept awake by a haunting question – would Julia Gillard have done a worse job?

While Labor’s primary vote in today’s Newspoll results, at 34 per cent, is significantly higher than Gillard’s last result of 29 per cent three days before she was deposed, it’s feasible that Labor will end up close to the same place – losing the election, but not in the kind of landslide Gillard’s June polling suggested. 

Oh ye of little faith! In the week that Gillard was voted out by caucus, 57 votes to 45, another poll, from Essential Media, had the beleaguered PM at a primary vote of 34 per cent. Last Tuesday Essential had Kevin Rudd at 38 per cent, and given Rudd’s ‘slump’ in the Newspoll results, even the Essential poll could be down to 37 or 36 per cent when it is released tomorrow. 

The psephologically-minded will remember that Essential’s polling method, which includes a two-week averaging of results to smooth volatility, made a strong debut in the 2010 election by being closer to the actual vote results than the established polls – Newspoll, Galaxy, Nielsen and Roy Morgan. That might have been beginners luck, but we shall see after September 7.

The important point is that most commentators expected primary vote figures to tighten as the actual voting day approached. That’s pretty normal, as voters’ minds become focused on issues rather than on superficial factors such as whether or not Julia Gillard had an annoying voice, or whether Tony Abbott should vary the colour of his ties.

So the Newspoll primary vote for Labor could, after an unusually weak performance from Kevin Rudd in last night’s leaders debate, tick down a point a week until polling day – 34, 33, 32, election!

And had Gillard been in power, even without Rudd's quick fixes of ‘abolishing the carbon tax’ and ‘stopping the boats’, she might have seen support tighten – 29, 30, 31 election!

Those who just want to see the back of Labor might not care too much which of these was the more likely. But there is a very big difference for the future of Labor in Australia. 

Under the former scenario, Rudd would lose the election, though probably prevent the Coalition gaining a senate majority. Bill Shorten would assume the leadership post-election, and with some influence in the senate, set about frustrating Prime Minister Abbott while rebuilding Labor’s bridges with the currently disenchanted, or in some cases disgusted, union movement. 

Under the latter scenario, Julia Gillard would have lost the election, though again would probably not have handed a senate majority to Abbott, and it would have been Kevin Rudd rebuilding Labor in his own image. 

What different outcomes they would be for the country. 

Of course, this could all be a bit premature. Rudd’s slide in the polls could easily turn around if Abbott makes any of the gaffes for which he has become well-known. 

But from this point in time, that seems the only sure way Rudd can regain ground. Rudd’s key attacks in last night’s debate fell flat. 

The ‘GST scare campaign’ isn’t working because journalists aren’t buying it. Abbott has been quite clear that if, as a first term prime minister, he is advised to act on the GST, that he would take the idea to a general election – as John Howard did when he won by a whisker in 1998. 

Even Rudd’s accusations that Abbott will ‘cut to the bone’ and that Abbott secretly plans to enforce ‘Campbell Newman-style austerity’ after the election has been blunted by two factors. 

First, last week’s unemployment data showed Campbell Newman’s state showing relatively robust job creation figures, bucking a national trend of job losses. The social and economic pain of Newman’s early months in power is now less easily used to demonise his style of ‘austerity’.

Second, Rudd’s done a fair bit of cutting to the bone himself. The Economic Statement released two weeks ago to pre-empt the Pre-Election Fiscal Outlook document that treasury will prepare independently ahead of the election, has been estimated by unions to contain up to 5000 public service job cuts. 

These would be achieved by raising the ‘efficiency dividend’ from 1.25 per cent to 2.25 per cent – that’s the amount that will be shaved off budgets in the public service. And though Finance Minister Penny Wong said that doesn’t mean job losses, on the ground public servants aren’t so sure. 

So if Rudd cuts 5000 jobs, as the Community and Public Sector Union predicts and if Abbott cuts up to 20,000 public sector jobs, only to then recruit a ‘standing green army’ of 15,000 environmental works labourers, who is the most Newman-esque? And does it matter anyway?

Abbott’s performance on the campaign trail, and in last night's debate, is oh-so careful not to reveal too much of his policy agenda until it is too late for Labor to do much to counter it. That’s nasty and tricksy, but the same kind of small-target strategy that brought Rudd to power in 2007. 

And if Abbott can remain gaffe-free for a few weeks more, he could end up with a handsome lead over Rudd on election day. 

If that happens, the handful of MPs in caucus who actually like Rudd will be kicking themselves and wondering why they didn’t sacrifice Julia Gillard instead. 

And again, [italics] if [end italics] that’s the way the polls go, the man with the biggest spring in his step on election night won’t be Tony Abbott – it’ll be the man charged with tearing strips off the Coalition as the economic downturn continues into 2014 – Bill Shorten. 

One can only wonder how well he's sleeping at the moment.

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