KEVIN RUDD seems almost out of magic bullets; after recruiting former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie to his cause the latest Newspoll has found his government continuing to languish, and in the wash-up from a tepid debate performance against Tony Abbott, Labor’s fate may well be sealed.
If it isn’t over until the fat lady sings — to coin an old phrase most recently popularised by former Richmond premiership player and 3AW football caller Rex Hunt — then she must be down in the basement, warming up her vocal cords, and readying to burst into melody.
After a week that has seen Kevin Rudd’s — and Labor’s — grip on this election slip dangerously, two big opportunities for Rudd have passed with it: the recruitment of Peter Beattie to stand in the marginal Liberal seat of Forde in Brisbane, and last night’s leaders’ debate hosted by the ABC.
Whilst the effect of the debate remains to be seen (although we will discuss this later), Newspoll has had its researchers in the field over the weekend, and following the Beattie announcement — and its findings make for sobering reading for those of ALP inclination.
The Newspoll for today’s issue of The Australian finds voter sentiment unchanged on a two-party basis from the last survey a week ago, with the Coalition continuing to head Labor, 52-48, on the two-party measure.
That measure is about as good as it gets for Labor here; we’ll run through some figures, and then I want to talk about this result in the context of last night’s debate as well.
Newspoll finds the Coalition primary vote sitting on 46% (+2%); the ALP on 35% (-2%); Greens on 11% (+2%) and “Others” on 8% (-2%).
These numbers are close to disastrous for the ALP, despite the two-party shakeout; the figure of 35% is little better than Labor’s support just before Julia Gillard was dumped.
If we look to the “underlying primary” calculation I sometimes use to strip the Greens’ vote out of what is always a two-way overall contest, those primary votes look more like 49% to the Coalition cf. 43% to Labor; viewed this way — and remembering “Others” almost always split 50-50 — Newspoll’s two-party figure is probably a sliver of a point off having been rounded to 53-47 instead of 52-48.
A new ReachTel poll over the weekend did find a 53-47 result for the Coalition, which was out from 52-48 in its previous survey; we will see what comes through this week from the other polls, but it is suggestive of the gradual drift back toward the Coalition that we have seen over the past few weeks after the peak in ALP support.
So if we split the difference — and call it 52.5% after preferences to the Coalition — this equates to a net gain of 12 seats, an 84-66 seat win, and an overall majority of 18 seats.
Newspoll, however, gets worse for Labor this week.
It finds Kevin Rudd’s personal approval rating up one point to 39%, but his disapproval number up one point too, to 48% — Rudd’s rating on this measure is settling far enough in net negative territory to be a concern, and with relatively few undecideds left to target.
Tony Abbott, on the other hand, sees his approval number rise to 38% (+4%) and his disapproval figure down to 52% (-4%); it suggests that with the election campaign underway people are now starting to look more closely at Abbott’s actual performance as opposed to listening to what the loudest voices — Labor’s — have been saying about him.
Significantly, these movements also mean that Rudd is now only negligibly more popular than Abbott, which calls into question the entire rationale for restoring him to the Labor Party leadership in the first place.
Newspoll’s “preferred Prime Minister” numbers underline the contention even further, with Rudd down a point to 46%, still leading Abbott, who nonetheless picks up four points on the measure to sit at 37%.
It seems — taking this poll, the ReachTel survey I alluded to, and the other polling we’ve seen over the past fortnight — that the Coalition is almost the certainty to win this election again that it has been regarded as for most (if not all) of the current term of Parliament.
It’s also fairly clear that the parachuting of Beattie into a key marginal seat in Brisbane has had negligible (if any) positive impact on Labor’s fortunes — and Beattie, like Rudd, was probably more likely to deliver a “sugar hit” that would wear off than a sustained, slow burn of incrementally increasing voter support.
And even then, I never expected it to make any difference south of the Tweed.
This brings us to last night’s leaders’ debate.
For mine, I think the encounter was decisively won by Abbott; that assessment is not born of my membership of the Liberal Party (although I’m happy that the two coincide) but rather of the fact that Rudd was nigh well hopeless.
It appears he flagrantly breached the agreed rules for the debate by bringing and speaking from prepared notes, when none were permitted; it’s the type of poor form I would expect of Rudd, but even with that advantage his effort was nonetheless dismal.
I’m not saying Abbott’s was a faultless performance, mind; yet it was simple, to the point, clear, and to my mind a concise appeal for support in the face of ample reason not to support the ALP (that Abbott — wisely — opted not to get bogged down in the detail of).
By contrast, Rudd presented as flustered, nervous, and restive; his body language was appalling (just what was he doing with all those hand gestures?) and more than once — when nailed by Abbott on a point — he looked like he might jump across the set and try to punch Abbott on the jaw.
(Not that he would have got very far against the one-time Oxford boxing champion).
If scare campaigns on the GST, cuts to the health and education budgets, and adherence to the now-discredited $70 billion Abbott “black hole” story are discounted from Rudd’s utterances last night, he didn’t actually say much — and what he did say was mostly the hyperbolic, meaningless spin voters are becoming reaccustomed to hearing from him.
His insistence on trying to run scare campaigns — mostly over a rise in the GST — at irrelevant points in the debate, and especially on issues Abbott explicitly ruled out, made Rudd appear petulant and ill-prepared.
About the only issue Rudd was cogent on was gay marriage, which is ironic given he only recently reversed a long-standing personal opposition to the legalisation of the measure.
Yet I am a cynic, and with no disrespect intended to gay people, I think Rudd is using them on this; it’s an attempt to wedge Abbott, and it’s a screen to hide behind and try to distract attention from his (and Labor’s) litany of more meaningful failures over six years in government.
And whilst the question of who won the debate has been met with mixed answers depending on who you listen to, it’s probably telling that the Nine Network’s political correspondent, the respected veteran journalist Laurie Oakes, overrode his network’s “worm” to declare that Abbott had, in his view, won the debate.
(A note on the “worm:” either get rid of it from these debates altogether, or stop recruiting university students to fill the role of “panellists.” My preference is to get rid of it — it’s a dumb idea from the 1990s that is thoroughly unrepresentative, and past its expiry date).
All of this brings us back to the polls.
It remains to be seen what happens from here, but I tend to think that if the next round of polls — those whose research is undertaken after last night — fails to show any gains for the ALP, then the election is as good as over.
The one qualifier to that call is of course the perennial possibility of a colossal gaffe being committed by the Liberals; anything is possible — even if unlikely in this case, given the iron discipline with which the Coalition has conducted itself over the past three years.
The point is that time is running out for Labor, and its leader would appear to be just about out of magic bullets — if, indeed, he has any left at all.
That fat lady must just about be through her warm up routine, and almost ready to sing.