Bernard Keane, Crikey Canberra correspondent
Kevin Rudd has a couple of small advantages in his improbable, likely impossible, quest to rescue Labor’s fortunes over the coming months. He has a free hand on policy and a free hand on the election date.
Julia Gillard’s abandonment of the traditional incumbent’s advantage of calling an election turned out to be a colossal error, delivering none of the expected advantages and giving her enemies, particularly in the media, yet another weapon with which to attack her. It also enabled the Coalition to plan its campaign and resourcing. All of that is off now; Rudd can call an election sooner, or he can wait into October.
Gillard rushed to the polls in 2010 after declaring victory and going home in the various wars she inherited from Rudd – on the mining tax, on a carbon price, on asylum seekers. Rudd might see that as a bad precedent and opt for demonstrating to the country that calm, measured government has returned. Notice last night that he spoke about economic issues in China and the potential threat they pose to Australia – perfect fodder for the argument that a period of measured, sensible management is needed before Australia goes to the polls.
No wonder last night Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was insisting on an election on September 14 or earlier.
More significant is that Rudd comes to the leadership unbound by any policy commitments, with a free hand and a blank slate. He repeated yesterday, when announcing his challenge, his mantra about being a Prime Minister of a country that makes things. With Kim Carr likely to return to the industry portfolio, expect a lurch into industry assistance, one intended to go much further in sharpening the difference between Labor and the Coalition on Australian jobs, a subject on which Labor still has some credibility with voters and that has some populist potential unexploited by Abbott.
Rudd has already publicly mused about moving to an emissions trading scheme earlier, which would send the carbon price permit plummeting to far below the price per tonne of the Coalition’s risible Direct Action scheme. Suddenly the Coalition would be the party of the more costly carbon pricing scheme, and not in a subtle way only understood by policy wonks, but in the most obvious way, the price per tonne of carbon abatement.
That leaves asylum seekers. There are competing policy directions here. Rudd supporters Laura Smyth and Janelle Saffin earlier this week criticised the revived Pacific Solution and the no-advantage test in caucus. But Bob Carr recently has been repeatedly emphasising that a large number of Tamil and Iranian asylum seekers are in fact would-be economic migrants. The government has already sent back over 1200 economic migrants from Sri Lanka. And western Sydney MPs looking to Rudd to save their seats won’t be interested in a kinder, gentler asylum seeker policy.
There’s also the small matter of the mining tax, which was crafted as the result of a deal between former deputy PM Wayne Swan, Gillard and the three transnational foreign mining companies that helped bring Rudd down. There’s no deal any more, and Rudd has a willing partner in the Greens, who’d be happy to see the tax expanded after the election – remember they have the balance of power in the Senate at least until July next year, and if Rudd lifts Labor’s vote significantly, they’ll keep it.
But Rudd can also retain his predecessor’s education and DisabilityCare commitments. Both are now legislated and funded (spare a thought for Peter Garrett, who had done outstanding work to prosecute the case for the Gonski reforms and get legislation through a hung Parliament, and was delighted to see it passed by the Senate yesterday, and by 7.30 had left politics). Both are popular with the electorate, and education remains a potent wedge tool against the opposition, albeit one Gillard was unable to use effectively. In short, Rudd can pick and choose from both his predecessor’s and his opponent’s policies to craft an alternative and engaging narrative.
How far this will represent genuine Labor values and principles as opposed to policies that test well in focus groups, however, remains problematic. And remember the last time Rudd came up against Abbott? Rudd proved entirely unable to respond to Abbott, except on health, where he badly wrongfooted Abbott by taking advantage of Abbott’s aggression to offer a calmer, more mature alternative. Look for a lot more of that approach over the coming days, weeks and most likely months before we go to the polls.
Oh, and Rudd has a third advantage, one that Julia Gillard never had. He won’t have someone who desperately craves his job undermining him without any thought of the cost to the party. At least, not for the moment.
This article was first published in crikey.com.au