Labor remains almost ten points ahead in opinion polls. According to the Reuters Poll Trend, having been ahead by at least ten points ever since Kevin Rudd became its leader last December, Labor has just slipped to a 9.5 per cent lead. How can Rudd lose?
There are a number of factors that should not cause Labor to lose, despite party mythology to the contrary. First, there are some superficial ones that should be disposed of: dirty tricks, rabbits out of a hat and just being habitually unlucky.
Then there are some more significant myths that should be discounted. Labor will not lose because it will self-destruct on policy. Rudd is too careful and cautious about both foreign and domestic policy to allow that.
Labor will not lose because of Rudd’s personal limitations. There have already been allegations made against his character. He has been tested on his personal beliefs and background. Minor scandals aside, Rudd is a very different person to Mark Latham. This is a key difference between 2004 and 2007. Elections are increasingly a referendum on leadership and Rudd leads Howard as preferred Prime Minister in the polls.
There are, however, four reasons why Labor might still lose.
Howard’s lead in economic management remains one of the government’s strengths. While interest rates and housing affordability might favour Labor, the strong economy is one factor that could still return Howard to office if most voters are content enough with this central aspect of their lives.
Business will eventually back the Coalition to the hilt on industrial relations if they believe that they alone stand between Labor and victory. Despite some advocacy, business remains relatively passive, satisfied that Rudd is quite conservative. He is now being pictured by cartoonists as a younger version of Howard. While this horrifies some Labor supporters it is a reassuring image for swinging voters. But business will still back Howard when the chips are down.
The power of incumbency, especially the government advertising blitz, remains very important. We live in a PR state and governments have the power of the PR purse. The government will spend big (with a capital B). The government’s new WorkChoices advertisements have the potential to really bite with swinging voters. The government PR campaign will increase in intensity prior to the campaign proper.
Finally, Labor might just fall short because of the government’s campaigning for marginal seats. Labor might win 51 per cent, just as Kim Beazley did in 1998 and Andrew Peacock did in 1990, but lose in the marginal seats. When you look at the election from the bottom up rather than the top down, by examining individual seats within Labor’s range, there are several, such as Malcolm Turnbull’s Sydney seat of Wentworth and a couple of the seats in Western Australia, that look difficult for Labor to win. If Labor manages to lose three or four seats it is not likely to win overall.
Labor, importantly, is ahead with the bookmakers, suggesting that the public at large is becoming used to the possibility of a Labor victory. This will help Rudd’s prospects. I certainly didn’t expect Labor to be this far ahead in mid-August. But unlike some of my academic colleagues I remain on the fence. Changes of government are rare in Australian politics. We have only experienced five since World War II (1949, 1972, 1975, 1983, and 1996). I will be astounded if there is not a swing to Labor, but I don’t yet know whether it will be large enough for it to win office.
While this election is still there to be won or lost, Labor is rightfully the hot favourite. But John Howard was correct to point recently to the 1993 election as an example of what is always possible. On that occasion Paul Keating won the unwinnable election in similar circumstances. John Howard once described himself as "Lazarus with a triple bypass" for rising from the dead to reclaim the Liberal leadership. If he manages to escape defeat on this occasion his new nickname might well become Harry Houdini.
I believe that this conclusion holds even in the light of the recent story about Rudd's visit four years ago to the strip club in Manhattan. If Rudd is open and contrite, as he has been, then there will be no lasting damage to his reputation. The revelation may even serve to further humanise him in the eyes of many voters.
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