The latest opinion polls confirm the trend that Federal Labor has been steadily improving its position since the introduction of the carbon tax earlier in the year — the unexpected impost that had shattered trust between Julia Gillard and the Australian electorate.
In just a few months Labor has moved from a position where its MPs faced almost total electoral wipe-out to a surreal 50-50 split with the Coalition, as shown in a recent Newspoll published by The Australian.
In fact, Labor’s primary vote has moved from its cataclysmic low point of 26 points to 36 per cent, according to the pollster. Some reports predict that this would put Labor within range of victory with Green preferences.
Newspoll puts Labor in the most favourable light of all the major polling firms, but other opinion polls have also confirmed that Labor is, as The Australian’s Chris Kenny puts it, “off the mat”.
But the result and the noise around the polling upswing are not necessarily related to the reality on the ground, and has even less to do with the decision the electorate will have to make in about one year’s time.
Media response has been predictable.
“Audacity of hope: Gillard’s new campaign weapon”, declared the Sydney Morning Herald, with its political editor Peter Hartcher arguing that the results allow Gillard’s defenders to make the case to hold firm with her until the election.
“Stick with Gillard because her comeback is working, Abbott is in deepening difficulty, there is a year to the next election and she deserves a chance to continue to rebuild,” Hartcher wrote.
In fact, most of the noise about Labor’s turnaround is related to Labor’s leadership struggle between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.
Mr Rudd now has a substantial grouping inside the Labor Caucus, but not the majority he needs to discharge Ms Gillard of her duties as prime minister.
Labor insiders say Ms Gillard needs to cling on to the job until the end of the year. Beyond that date, planning for an election will be in full swing, making it well-nigh impossible to put in a new leader accompanied by the sort of disruptions that occurred when Ms Gillard dislodged Mr Rudd.
The Rudd camp, in order to storm the barricades, first needs to be able to show that Ms Gillard is “unelectable”.
Ms Gillard has helped shore up her support by making a series of promises on disabilities and education.
As an aside, in a sleight of hand that has barely warranted a comment, in the space of a couple of years we have gone from a Rudd Labor “revolution” in education to a Gillard Labor “crusade” in education, with little evidence of either except for promises way into the future.
The overall effect of the Gillard ascendancy, according to media consensus, has been bad for Tony Abbott, putting pressure on his leadership.
The reality is that the opposite is the case.
The Coalition would much prefer to fight Julia Gillard than Kevin Rudd at next year’s election.
Rudd is a far more adept and artful politician who has a strong following in the Australian electorate, not least of which is related to his ugly dismissal as prime minister at the hands of the faceless men.
Rudd is more comfortable with the electorate and holds social views that are more in line with the bulk of the electorate, and the former PM remains popular in Queensland.
Labor’s focus is now clearly going to be on Tony Abbott and the recent “exposé” on student politics when the Opposition leader was 19 is a foretaste of what is coming.
Over the coming months, pressure will mount on Abbott as Labor tries to find a chink in his armour, including further efforts to prosecute the case that he allegedly has “a problem with women”.
However, the real choice the electorate will have to make will come later next year when the electorate has to make a decision based largely on trust.
Both leaders will make their pitch on an array of policies, but in Julia Gillard’s case there will inevitably be residual distrust about the false promises made at the last election. The electorate will find the broken pledge on a carbon tax very difficult to forget.
At this stage of the game, Tony Abbott, coming at least as he is without the baggage of governing, will be better placed to assure the electorate that his bona fides are more genuine in that regard.