The Labor Party appears now genuinely fearful that Tony Abbott could pull off the most unlikely of victories at the coming election, and has decided in response to go after him personally rather than campaign on its own record in government.
It is a sign of the desperation which has slowly crept in to the party that it has decided to adopt such a personal campaign after the federal Budget failed to give it the hoped for bounce in the polls. The badly handled introduction of the 40 per cent mining super tax has caused more concern in the community than credit for the Government.
Yet a “destroy Abbott” strategy is a dangerous one, which has the potential to backfire.
First, the deep dislike of Mr Abbott, which is evident among elements of the Labor Party and within the Left in general, is not necessarily shared by the wider community.
Whereas Mr Abbott’s political opponents see him as some kind of religious zealot and an arch-hypocrite because of his aggressive style, everyday Australians are more likely to see him as someone with old-fashioned values who sticks to them.
Mr Abbott may be an unreconstructed Australian male who is not in sync with feminist views on abortion and teenage sex, but he has a lot of fellow-travellers in the suburbs and the regions where the voters are.
And whereas the Labor Party is now pouncing on every slip of the tongue that Mr Abbott makes – including his ABC 7:30 Report admission that he sometimes tells “less than the Gospel truth in the heat of political battle” – ordinary voters may see this as a sign of normality. To them Mr Abbott is a refreshing change from the constant spin and political speak, which comes out of the mouths of professional politicians.
It is certainly no shock to them that politicians don’t tell the truth all the time.
Second, Labor is on dangerous grounds if it wants to run an election on the credibility of the two respective leaders.
Mr Rudd has done immeasurable damage to his own standing in the community thanks to his backflips and about-faces on policy, and would come out second-best in such a campaign.
Third, Mr Abbott is not a politician who is likely to crumble in a fight. In fact, the exact opposite is true. One of his faults is that he seems to enjoy always being in the limelight even when it is a problematic issue.
It suits him that Labor is making the discussion in people’s lounge rooms about Tony Abbott rather than the Rudd Government.
Whether the verdict on the “occasional untruths” admission will be damaging to Mr Abbott or not it is too early to gauge, but it is an odd tactic to be putting the entire focus on the Opposition leader at this stage of the political cycle.
So far, the attacks being waged against Mr Abbott are being led by the Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who describes Mr Abbott as “phony Tony”.
Small Business Minister Craig Emerson, who has no qualms about going over the top, has also been deployed as an attack dog.
In fact, the day after Mr Abbott’s so-called gaffe, no fewer than 10 ministers lined up to attack him.
Yet Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose job it seems is to announce only good news and attend welcome-home ceremonies for lone sailor Jessica Watson, was deliberately kept above the fray.
Despite the appearance of unity of purpose in pursuing Mr Abbott, there is growing internal angst about the strategies being adopted by the Government.
Reported remarks by Prime Minister Bob Hawke that it “breaks my heart” to see what Kevin Rudd was doing to the Government and his fear that the election could destroy Julia Gillard’s ambitions as well, have resonated deeply within the Labor Party.
Frustration is increasingly being directed against the Prime Minister’s office. Mr Rudd’s controlling and bullying behaviour and constant interference in the running of ministerial portfolios over the past two years, is undermining his prestige.
Labor MPs realise that they gave Mr Rudd too much power and freedom, and that he has squandered this by pursuing a frenetic bureaucratic government with too few results.
And the disappointment expressed by Mr Hawke with Mr Rudd as Prime Minister is now pervasive among MPs.
Questions are being asked about the advice Mr Rudd gets and whether it was wise to have a prime ministerial staff dominated by young advisers in their late twenties who had no political experience at all.
It is still inconceivable that there would be any move in the Labor Party to take Mr Rudd down as leader before the election.
But his reputation internally is so tarnished that, unless he pulls off a huge win at the coming poll, he will not last very long afterwards.
One way or another, Mr Rudd’s political career seems to be coming to a close.
With the retreat on climate change and the war with the miners over the resource super profits tax, Labor may have only one positive policy to fight on in the coming campaign – its success in staving off the worst of the global economic crisis.
All the rest, including the personal pursuit of Mr Abbott, is likely to be negative.