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Personality matters in Australia polls

If Labor does win the forthcoming election, its leadership reshuffles will be the central reason for the result.
Last modified: 4 Aug 2013 16:41
Kevin Rudd, has named September 7 as the date for his country's next parliamentary polls. [Reuters]

I have a conspiracy theory about recent Australian politics.

It starts with this premise: After more than a decade out of power, Labor wanted its own triple-term. So strategists set out to decide how best that could be achieved - and settled, from the beginning, on having two alternating leaders: a campaigner, and a legislator. 

Kevin Rudd was the great campaigner. He duly did the business – delivering, in 2007, an overwhelming victory.

But after some symbolic moves – the national "Sorry" to aborigines, and signing the Kyoto protocol – Labor needed its leader to push through the big reforms. Julia Gillard was brought in and, after the tightest of elections, managed to keep Labor in power. 

Under her, despite minority government, lots got done. A carbon tax, school-funding reform, a national broadband network and a disability-insurance scheme are all significant – and controversial - achievements. But passing tough reforms meant unpopularity along the way. Labor’s fortunes fell. With just weeks to go until the next election, it was time to bring back the campaigner. "Rudd's revenge" meant Rudd's return.

And, sure enough, with Rudd’s return, opinion polls suddenly show a close election for September 7. It’s quite possible Labor could win.

If Labor does - and that’s still a very big if - that would mean Labor achieving that elusive triple-term. And – and here’s the clue to the conspiracy – it would have achieved something surely impossible under a single leader. Were Julia Gillard still prime minister now, it’s likely her party would be falling off the electoral cliff in September.

But, equally, had Kevin Rudd not been deposed in the first place, it’s hard to believe that – after six years in office - he would be enjoying the popularity bounce he’s getting now. That’s largely as a result of being a "wronged man, rightfully restored". 

The past six years have been perfect - the campaigner won, the legislator achieved... only to hand back to the campaigner, just in time to campaign.

Of course, like all the best conspiracy theories, there’s no truth in mine.  

There was no great plan; no overall strategist in charge. What’s happened has been a result of political chaos and mis-management, not good-management. Nevertheless, the outcome is the same; Labor looks competitive in an election that would deliver a historic third term.

It’s not entirely a change in personality that has reversed Labor’s electoral fortunes. The significantly toughening-up of the policy towards asylum seekers – sending asylum seekers who come by boat to Papua New Guinea or Nauru, with resettlement in Australia completely ruled out – has contributed to the bounce. So has the shift from a "carbon tax" to a less emotive "emission trading scheme".

But personality does matter hugely. If Labor does win the forthcoming election – and polls now suggest it’s too close to call – the back-and-forth with the party’s leadership will be the central reason for the result.

Labor couldn’t have planned their chaos better.  

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