When the Labor Party caucus chose Kevin Rudd to replace Kim Beazley as Labor leader last December they improved Labor’s chances of winning the next federal election. Rudd has all the necessary qualities for modern political campaigning: articulate, quick on his feet and tireless. He is also a well-read, intellectual man with a deep personal belief system. He will stay the course well against a dogged opponent in John Howard.
But all Rudd has given Labor is a chance. Labor is still the underdog to win. The government remains the clear favourite. If I was a betting man I would be putting my money on John Howard’s reelection. The available odds in the betting ring apparently reflect my hunch at the moment.
Writing this in the same week that polls published in The Australian newspaper rate Labor higher than at any time since the early months of 2001 might seem strange. Yet we have been down this track before. Labor is like the football team that has early season good form but is weighed down by its history of failure.
In that sense four successive election defeats have left scars not only among the Labor caucus but also among Labor voters. There is a crisis of belief. Few of them reckon deep down that they can really win this time. From Kevin Rudd downwards they will all have to hold their nerve and perform at their very best if they are to pull off victory this time.
There is a case to be made for a Labor victory. That is true. The pendulum does swing back in Australian politics. And it must soon be time for that to happen again. There is an It’s Time factor that should help Labor this time around. The accumulated grumbles and legitimate hurts in the electorate catch up with all governments eventually.
The government does seem increasingly hostage to international events. The fate of its allies Bush and Blair in the USA and the UK must give it cause to worry. The Iraq War is hardly a positive anymore for the government, to put it mildly. Furthermore, as the climate change debate has gained momentum it has increasingly made the government look like an old-fashioned non-believer scrambling to catch up.
Similarly the government is not looking as sure-footed on domestic issues as it has in the past. Industrial relations reform is the prime example of such stumbling. The electorate remains to be convinced about the fairness of the changes and the union movement is galvanised into action against them.
When these factors are linked to Labor looking better under Rudd than it has for some time then the environment would seem to be right for a strong Labor performance. The positive national polls have been followed up by polling in individual electorates that looks equally good for Labor, such as the surveys of South Australian marginal seats published in The Advertiser last week.
So why is Rudd still the underdog? The question can be answered in several different ways, but, whatever the line of argument, there is still a strong case for the return of the government.
Australians change their governments quite rarely. Menzies and his successors were allowed 23 years by the voters and Hawke and Keating were given 13.
On top of that incumbency carries with it great advantages in modern politics. MPs in marginal seats are increasingly hard to dislodge. And that is where Labor will find it hardest to generate winning swings.
The Australian economy is still purring along nicely. There is no groundswell against the government there. The Prime Minister personally also is still motoring along with impressive vitality. He keeps on keeping on. His early morning walks are a symbol of that energy, contradicting the fact that he will be 68 when the election comes. There is no evidence that his energy levels are falling, as can happen sometimes to long-serving political leaders.
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