Sunday, August 4, 2013

Rudd flips incumbency on its head - Sydney Morning Herald

COMMENT

Prime minister Kevin Rudd leaves government house.

Back to the front: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd leaves Government House after advising the Governor-General to call an election. Photo: Jay Cronan

This will be a campaign like no other. Never before has a prime minister opened his campaign by inviting his opponent to join him in weekly debates until polling day, starting on day one.

Never before has the incumbent announced the election date on social media and included a plea for donations in his opening statement. The surprise was that he didn't post a ''selfie'' of the Rudd family conference that decided on this course.

Never before has a PM conceded at the start of a campaign that if the election had been held this weekend, he would have lost. And, never before has a two-term government crafted a campaign around doing things ''a new way''.

Rudd's audacity is reflected in the readiness to appropriate the words of John Howard, another prime minister who entered a campaign under pressure, and declare that this election is about who you trust. Howard, of course, won that campaign in 2004.

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Having exceeded the expectations of those Labor MPs who turned to him in utter desperation, Rudd is now determined to meet his own and record what would be the most remarkable victory in Australian political history.

In case we needed reminding, Rudd volunteered that the last time he addressed the media in the Prime Minister's courtyard at Parliament House, he was in tears after being replaced by Julia Gillard.

''You know me'' was the message, ''warts and all, and I am stronger for what I have experienced''.

Deliberately, there were no surprises from Tony Abbott in reply. What you have seen and heard over the past three years, he pledged, is what you will get.

The most potent line is the one Abbott has already used repeatedly: ''Do you really want three more years like the last six?''

The rub is that Abbott won't lead a minority government if, as the polls suggests, the result is another hung parliament. So if you want the certainty of change, he says, vote for the Coalition.

This is a contest between two stayers carrying record weights in their saddlebags - the PM who was torn down by his own people and repeatedly scorned until despair took hold; and the Opposition Leader who is liked by colleagues but loathed by many voters.

''If you don't like Abbott, never meet him. If you like Rudd, never meet him'' is how one Coalition insider describes the dynamic.

Rudd's decision to pull the election trigger comes after the most ruthless exercise in deck-clearing in memory. The aim has been to neutralise Labor's negatives, trump Abbott's plan to stop the boats, and put the onus on Abbott to say where he would make cuts to restore the budget to surplus.

Even on Saturday, Rudd was giving mixed signals on election timing and suggesting he would attend the G20 summit of leaders, which would have ruled out September 7.

But after the decision by Victoria to sign up to Labor's school funding reforms, any more prevarication on Rudd's part would have been utterly counterproductive.

The Victorian decision came after Abbott promised on Friday that he would match Labor's spending on schools, and thereby reduced the incentive for the Napthine government to do a last-minute deal. It represents a remarkable endorsement on one of Labor's preferred issues, but not one that is likely to decide the contest.

The economy and, sadly, boats will be the main battleground and Abbott enters the campaign as narrow favourite. His instinct is to resist the challenge of weekly debates from the man he dismisses as ''all talk and no action'', but that might change if Rudd makes up early ground.


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