08/07/2013 - 15:40

Time for a real policy debate

08/07/2013 - 15:40

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Just more than a week after Kevin Rudd took back the top job and suddenly Labor’s starting to look competitive again.

Time for a real policy debate

Just more than a week after Kevin Rudd took back the top job and suddenly Labor’s starting to look competitive again. 

The recent convulsions at the top of the Labor government in Canberra have provided a ringing endorsement of former British Labour prime minister Harold Wilson’s wise words that “a week is a long time in politics”.

Whether the changes are enough to pave the way for the salvation of a drifting administration at the pending federal election is another matter.

Certainly Kevin Rudd’s chutzpah in snatching back the reins as prime minister, as if the past three years since his unceremonious dumping in favour of Julia Gillard had not happened, has been breathtaking.

Consider this: an appearance on the international stage through talks with the Indonesian leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta; ordering federal intervention in Labor’s troubled NSW branch; challenging Liberal leader Tony Abbott to a series of debates; and playing ducks and drakes with the election date.

Taken collectively, the impression has been one of a man in charge.

There’s been something of a transition in Labor’s stocks in Western Australia as well. When Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced he would draw the curtain on a 20-year career as the member for Perth, it appeared he had run up the white flag over the possibility of winning another term. Mr Smith had been a Gillard supporter but took a very low profile in the final leadership challenge.

Then up pops the ebullient Alannah MacTiernan, the former state minister who pushed through the Mandurah railway and is currently the mayor of the City of Vincent – in the Perth electorate – to snatch the Labor endorsement to oppose the Liberals’ Darryl Moore. Suddenly Labor has a spring in its step.

And it’s all happened in a week. Newspoll, the first opinion poll after the leadership coup, scored a two-party preferred vote of 51 per cent to 49 per cent in favour of the coalition – still a marked improvement for Labor – and had Mr Rudd well ahead of Liberal leader Mr Abbott as preferred prime minister.

Can it last? The correct answer is probably ‘it depends’. If voter sentiment can swing so significantly just with a change of leader, it probably has the capacity to swing back as well. What is undeniable is the extent of the volatility in the electorate.

One thing Labor’s leadership change has done is introduce a note of unpredictability. Last month Political Perspective advocated a change to Mr Rudd to help provide a contest during the election campaign. Ms Gillard was no longer cutting through in the media and a big proportion of male voters, in particular, had stopped listening. When that happens, political death follows.

One thing Mr Rudd does not lack is confidence. He might not be that popular with sections of his own team (witness the resignations and pending retirements of senior cabinet ministers) but he does project to voters. While that continues, his mere presence as Labor leader poses a threat to the coalition.

The problems that plagued Ms Gillard have not gone away. They include: how to stop the asylum seekers’ boats; what to do with the education reforms; the future of the carbon and mining taxes; and the fallout from the fatalities linked with the home insulation program under the fiscal stimulus package.

But Mr Rudd has not been slow in attempting to get on the front foot and unsettle Mr Abbott. The challenge for debates is an example, with some suggesting the opposition leader should not squib such an opportunity.

Mr Abbott’s immediate response calling for confirmation of the election date before any debate is decided is understandable. It adds a note of certainty. However he often comes across on television as hesitant and jerky when answering questions. Mr Rudd, by comparison, is a motor mouth.

So if Mr Abbott is to best the prime minister in an open forum, it will have to be on the quality of his argument rather than fluent delivery, bearing in mind such events do lend themselves to a touch of the theatrical.

Mr Rudd would welcome Ms MacTiernan’s endorsement to contest the seat of Perth, not just because she represents a high-profile candidate who could save the seat for Labor. They also share the goal of reforming the party’s internal power structure to better reflect changes in the community. That includes wider involvement in the candidate-selection process and reduced union influence in line with declining union membership.

Right now, though, they are post-election issues. The immediate challenge is for the parties to present their policies, and for the leaders to sell them to voters so that the election campaign is truly a contest of ideas.

Harold Wilson also said: “I’m an optimist, but an optimist who carries a raincoat.”

The policy ball is well and truly in Mr Rudd’s and Mr Abbott’s court. We live in hope.


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