It’s now most likely the John Howard-led Coalition will go into the election campaign well behind Kevin Rudd-led Labor.
The contest is set to be between an underdog government and opposition that’s out to keep its bandwagon rolling without any wheels falling off.
The secret to Mr Rudd’s seven-month polling lead, which has so baffled Liberal boffins, is Mr Rudd’s television performance that’s similar to the spritely ABC presenter, Tony Jones, of Lateline.
Even their politics seem similar, on the climate change theory if nothing else.
According to Newspoll chief, Sol Lebovic, parties generally try to be awarded underdog status so they can, hopefully, gain some sympathy.
However, this time Mr Howard is definitely down, and may be out.
“Occasionally they [the major parties] are so successful they have the voters convinced, at least for a while, that there are two underdogs in a two-dog race,” Mr Lebovic said in an interview with one-time Perth journalist, Frank Devine, carried in the July-August issue of Quadrant magazine.
Mr Devine asked: “If you were a player instead of a dispassionate observer, would you prefer to be an underdog or on a roll?”
“I think I’d prefer a bandwagon,” Mr Lebovic said.
“Being ahead in the polls at the start doesn’t mean you are always going to win, but if you are way out in front, and have the right stuff, you would look to keep the momentum going and watch the other guy playing catch-up.”
Rudd-led Labor certainly looks well-placed.
But is it really?
Later in the interview Mr Devine asked: “Would you say John Howard, trailing by 14 per cent on the two-party-preferred count as we speak, is done for in this year’s election?”
“No, I wouldn’t say so,” Mr Lebovic replied.
“As a matter of fact, he was further behind at an early stage of the 2001 race.
“Commentators who are trying to say it’s all over forget that Howard has been behind at this stage of the electoral cycle before.
“I don’t see this as a repeat of 1996, the last election at which there was a change in government.
“Howard is in a stronger position than Keating was at this stage of 1996. The commentators forget how Howard has managed to dictate the terms on which campaigns are fought.
“Every election is different.
“This is the first one in which climate change has been an issue, for example. Who knows what platforms Howard will use?
“He has the potential to recover.”
These are insightful remarks, and ones Labor understands.
However, what may be overlooked is the impact of Kevin Rudd’s strange proclivities despite the four years of TV training Howard minister, Joe Hockey, helped him gain on Channel 7’s Sunrise program.
But will most voters conclude the Labor leader has, to use Mr Lebovic’s term, “the right stuff”?
Put differently, when crunch time comes, not just when pollsters telephone, will most mark ballots Mr Rudd’s way?
That’s more pertinent than other questions Mr Lebovic answered.
There are several significant matters voters may consider, over and above those highlighted by Mr Lebovic.
Probably the strangest so far was Mr Rudd’s portrayal of himself and his parental family not as southern Queensland battler share farmers, but rather as victims of an allegedly harsh, and now deceased, business partner of his father.
His father drove into a tree on his way home after a day playing bowls.
Mr Rudd spoke of himself and his widowed mother being forced out of the farm house by their father’s allegedly harsh partner.
Unfortunately for Mr Rudd, significant numbers of voters saw this as swinging the lead at the expense of a dead man.
Many found this very public attack upon a dead man, to presumably win voter sympathy, as hitting well below the belt when all he needed to say was that the Rudds were, like most Australians in the 1960s, far from wealthy.
Why blacken a dead man and his surviving offspring?
Moreover, when the alleged eviction tale was scrutinised by a journalist who flew to Queensland to quiz those who may know what happened, her editor was pressured by Mr Rudd and his spin doctors to spike her story.
The next telling public Rudd hiccup came over his three Perth meetings with former premier, Brian Burke.
State Scene has it from an excellent source that it was he who sought out Mr Burke, not the other way around.
Enough emails and other sources surfaced showing Mr Rudd was a star attraction at Perugino’s Restaurant, rather than a belated blow-in.
Notwithstanding that he insisted his Perugino’s attendance – not to mention his other two meetings with Mr Burke – was accidental.
Give us a break.
Why not simply say: ‘Look, I wanted to meet Brian because he’s obviously an interesting character with considerable sway in WA’s Labor Party; and I felt a need to judge for myself – what’s wrong with that?’
That would have been far more convincing than his bungling effort to helter skelter from those meetings.
Next came his and deputy, Julia Gillard’s, moves against the Howard government’s workplace agreements.
For a time their case seemed convincing, even though it was fairly and squarely based on their desire to put unions back into the centre of the wage-fixation process, thereby boosting membership and revenue from dues.
The unions are, and have been since federation, pivotal in financing the Labor Party so all Labor administrations favour them above all else.
However, the wheels fell off this Rudd-Gillard campaign for a time when it was revealed Mr Rudd’s millionaire wife, Therese Rein’s WorkDirections Australia initially paid only 45 cents an hour in return for workers’ lost award benefits at a subsidiary business, Your Employment Solutions.
Here was Mr Rudd going for two-bob each way; clambering for votes by slamming the Howard system while his wife’s – and thus the Rudds’ – wealth, now nudging $200 million, was being boosted with help from the Howard system.
Each example may make some ponder long and hard before marking ballots the Rudd way.
The fact that he’s recently showed he was unable to comprehend the direction of productivity over the Howard years revealed how easily he gets out of his depth in unprepared interviews.
True he’s as adept as Tony Jones at what are called TV grabs.
But more is required than reciting a scripted 100-word statement before cameras.
There are even some doubts about his managerial style.
Information leaked about his days as a bureaucrat in Wayne Goss’s Labor government in Queensland – when he gained the nickname Dr Death – isn’t altogether encouraging.
True, these may be exaggerated, but Australia has had its fair share of overbearing PMs since the Menzies era – Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating – suggesting it’s time we had a run of calmer, more contemplative leaders.
What’s also concerning is the so-called climate change issue Mr Lebovic highlighted.
The problem here is that Mr Rudd has grasped at this in a gung-ho manner, which, if mishandled, could do immeasurable long-term harm to the nation’s economy.
Mr Howard, thankfully, has been far more cautious, far more circumspect, and thus more trustworthy.
Caltex already estimates petrol will rise by 10 cents a litre with a $40-per-tonne carbon tax.
That’s just for openers.
The one who puts all this best was former Treasury chief and one-time Queensland Nationals senator, John Stone, who recently spoke in Perth on the climate puzzle.
He recounted how, when he joined Treasury in the late 1950s one of the biggest bugbears was import controls via bureaucratically driven licensing.
A sizeable bureaucracy had sprung up to administer these counterproductive controls. Businessmen flew back and forth to Canberra, putting their cases for importing this and that, all of which sparked boundless submissions, assessments and reviews, which naturally meant bureaucratic oversight.
Such costly procedures, hangovers from the depressed 1930s and wartime 1940s were a headache that, thankfully, were eventually done away with, but only years after the war had ended.
Mr Stone said if the zealous Rudd approach towards combating climate change – a theory many experts query seriously – is any indication then those intrusive import controlling and policing days will have nothing on what Canberra’s forthcoming carbon police will embark upon in the years ahead.
As if Canberra doesn’t have enough bureaucratic controllers and enforcers.