KEVIN Rudd’s return to prime ministership changed the political game.
The five-week campaign in the lead up to the 7 September election will be crucial to whether Labor can make enough lower house seat gains in Rudd’s home state of Queensland to offset losses in other parts of the country.
The upper house is set to remain in minority, but the half-Senate election will determine whether the crossbench has a Greens tinge or is dominated by conservatives.
Punters give Labor only a one-in-three chance of winning but, as Paul Keating proved in 1993, pulling off the “sweetest victory of all” can’t be written off.
Having moved against Julia Gillard in June, Rudd has kept up a frenetic pace over five weeks addressing four problem areas: carbon pricing, asylum seekers, Labor reform and the economy.
Labor backbenchers say voters are much more open to talk about issues now than at any time in the past three years of the Gillard-Rudd rivalry.
“Before (the June change to Rudd) people didn’t want to know us … (and now) I must say the conversation has completely changed at a national level and the local level,” Victorian Labor MP Darren Cheeseman says.
But even with Rudd resurrected, the long-term trend in opinion polls and the current state of the parliament make Labor the underdog after six troubled years in office.
Given that the coalition’s starting point is 72 lower house seats – four short of a majority – a national average swing of less than half a per cent could deliver it government.
Out of the 150-seat lower house there are 41 seats held with a margin under five per cent, most of which lie in NSW (12) and Queensland (14).
Corangamite, as well as the independent-held seats of New England (NSW), Lyne (NSW) and Fisher (Queensland) are likely gains for the coalition.
Election analyst Anthony Green estimates a two per cent national swing could add another seven Labor seats on top of this to the coalition’s haul.
However, given the extraordinarily narrow margins in many Queensland seats, a swing of 2.5 per cent in Rudd’s home state could deliver Labor victory.
If the party slogans are anything to go by, voters have a choice between a “Stronger, Smarter, Fairer Australia” (Labor) or “Hope, Reward and Opportunity” (Liberal-National coalition).
Rudd inherited from Gillard an economy that’s still growing, low interest rates and low unemployment. There’s also ground-breaking initiatives like DisabilityCare Australia, paid parental leave and extra school funding.
He put internal reform of the ALP on the agenda by triggering federal intervention into the faction-ridden NSW branch and changing the leadership election rules.
Labor has begun talking up Rudd’s main success in his previous term: saving the nation from recession in the GFC, creating the national broadband network, boosting hospital funding, axing Work Choices and apologising to indigenous Australians.
Rudd’s decision to move from a carbon tax to an emissions trading scheme in 2014 has taken some of the heat out of the issue (although legislating it will be an entirely new ballgame).
Reworking asylum seeker policy to focus on regional cooperation, especially with Papua New Guinea and Nauru, gives Labor ammunition against the coalition.
However, despite its best efforts to spin an economic statement, the government is still burdened by the poorly designed mining tax and the failure to deliver a budget surplus in this term.
The coalition is also reheating its previous criticism of Rudd’s record: the home insulation scheme which has been linked to a handful deaths, house fires and allegations of rorting, over-spending on school halls and the blow-out in the cost of the national broadband network.
The Liberals have already launched advertisements featuring an angrily swearing Kevin Rudd next to damning quotes from Labor colleagues describing him as a “psychopath” and “dysfunctional” and will step this up in the campaign.
“They will do their best to remind people not of Kevin 07, but of Kevin 10 (when he was dumped as leader),” political academic Dr Ian Ward says.
Coalition strategists have been successful in remodelling Abbott’s image from a hard-hitting, negative opposition leader to a more prime ministerial “Dr Yes”.
The coalition’s election campaign will be methodical and small target, involving carefully crafted promises but no new spending measures.
The key messages are already well known: scrapping the carbon and mining taxes, stopping the boats, ending government waste and balancing the budget.
Abbott has neutralised some issues by accepting a Medicare levy rise to fund DisabilityCare and school funding plans.
He’s also embraced the tax cuts and pension rises that accompanied Labor’s carbon tax, even though he’s committed to repealing the carbon price itself. Even the Fair Work Act will remain mostly intact.
State-by-state, the election picture is mixed and will require targeted, research-driven campaigning by both sides.
Rudd’s best hopes lie in the southeast corner of his home state of Queensland.
When Rudd defeated John Howard at the 2007 poll, nine of the 23 seats Labor seized from the coalition were in Queensland.
Gillard reversed this in 2010 when seven of the 11 seats Labor lost to the coalition were in the Sunshine State.
Labor will have an uphill battle to claim any wins in Victoria, apart from the Greens-held seat of Melbourne on Liberal preferences.
Victorian political academic Nick Economou says Corangamite, Deakin and Latrobe are ripe for coalition wins. Liberal strategists believe McEwen is in play.
The coalition could be expected to hold its seats in WA and possibly pick up one of Labor’s three.
Rudd’s decision to clean up the NSW Labor party branch and place MPs such as Tony Burke, Chris Bowen and Anthony Albanese in senior roles, as well as his popularity in the Chinese community, will make western Sydney a competitive battleground.
Tasmanian political academic Richard Eccleston says the state Labor-Green government’s failings, combined with federal Labor’s unpopularity, could see Braddon and Bass fall to the coalition.
South Australia has been outside both parties’ radar in terms of lower house seats, with little expectation of any changing hands.
The two territories are also expected to see no change, although Labor is eyeing off the coalition seat of Solomon.
The half-Senate election is less predictable, but the upper house’s makeup will be crucial to the government’s legislative program.
Both major parties could be expected to hold at least two Senate seats in each state, but the success of independents, the Greens, Family First and the parties of Bob Katter and Clive Palmer will determine the remainder. – AAP