Leaders Prove Their Mettle Under Campaign Fire

By Dennis Shanahan

On the basis of political leadership and election campaigning the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader have achieved the aims they were set.

Win, lose or (god forbid) draw, both sides have finished the campaign well ahead of where they were expected to be only months or weeks ago.

Of course, one will lose the election and winning the campaign or even the popular vote but not forming government is cold comfort. But given that the ability of the winning side to govern confidently and the ability of the losing side to hold the newly elected government to account hangs on the margin of victory, the extent and manner of a defeat is crucial.

A narrowly re-elected government, particularly one dependent on Greens or independent support and without control of the Senate, will be paralysed in key areas.

States can limp along with a minority government but the modern federal sphere will prove unstable and eventually unworkable. A Labor government with a sound majority, a mandate and Greens in the Senate was unable to deliver an emissions trading scheme last year. What hope is there of getting agreement this year on climate change, a mining tax or more forces in Afghanistan with minorities in both houses.

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For Labor, the thought of a loss carries with it even greater fears than for the Coalition because it has been back in power for less than three years after being in opposition for more than a decade and it took its biggest political gamble in the modern era by removing a first-term prime minister in a palace putsch.

Labor acted a little more than eight weeks ago because one of Australia's most popular governments and most popular prime ministers in Kevin Rudd had become unelectable: Labor's primary vote in Newspoll was flatlining at 35 per cent and Rudd's net satisfaction rating was running at minus 20.

Labor's fatal zone for the primary vote is less than 40 per cent.

In the days of perpetual campaigning and short-term political capital, Labor was facing what it thought would be a generational loss under Rudd that would keep it out of office for at least another six years.

The Liberal Party took its gamble at the end of last year and elected the "unelectable" Abbott because the Coalition's primary vote was stuck in the mid 30s while its fatal zone is less than 43 per cent.

Both parties decided that unless they changed leaders they faced generational losses and their support was stuck in a death zone.

After being installed - Abbott months ago and Gillard only weeks ago - both leaders have demonstrated resolve, courage and discipline in the face of adversity and behaved with grace and dignity.

During the election campaign neither has provided a positive vision or bold approach on policy and both have demonstrated clear gaps in experience and understanding on some key issues, which is disappointing for the electorate and disheartening for the future; but the leaders have served their parties well.

At this stage all the honest strategists and pundits simply say no one knows what the result will be and that anyone who tells you they do is lying or pretending to be part of an inner sanctum.

The polling and advantages of incumbency, which include a 13-seat buffer, suggest Labor will be re-elected. But after stalling last week, Abbott has recovered momentum as Gillard tries everything in the final days to save every single seat she can because she knows, whether the final result reflects it or not, this election is in the balance in the final 48 hours.

When Gillard said yesterday it was a cliffhanger she meant it and Abbott's vow to campaign non-stop for 36 hours is a measure of his desperation. Abbott is closing in but may run out of time.

Abbott has performed spectacularly for the Liberal Party since becoming leader and the expectation of, at worst, a narrow loss for the Coalition in tomorrow's ballot is a remarkable turnaround.

When Abbott was elected leader and dumped Coalition support for an ETS he was subjected to a relentless campaign from Labor to reinforce as many negative stereotypes about him as possible. Labor MPs zeroed in on his religious beliefs, his unpopularity with women, his denial of climate change and his role as a senior minister in the Howard government.

Labor's relentless advertising campaign has been aimed at reviving those initial negative images, actually using Abbott's potential election as prime minister in its advertising campaign as a scare tactic.

In part because of Abbott's two great policy weaknesses - economic management and the National Broadband Network - which he shares with his team, the Labor campaign has succeeded in cutting the Coalition's 12-point lead on the economy to zero in the past four weeks.

But Abbott's greatest political flaw - ill discipline - has been kept under control during the campaign and his lack of serious blunders has surprised and worried his Labor opponents.

After a slow start and a dip in the middle, Abbott has led the Coalition campaign effectively, kept his team in order and actually come within reach of the Lodge. Given he was set the task merely of losing by fewer seats than a complete disaster, this is a remarkable turnaround and should guarantee him the continued support and faith of his colleagues if he is still Opposition Leader next week.

Gillard's performance, in the face of what should have been a soul-destroying and enervating series of damaging leaks from her own side, has been equally remarkable. Labor's primary vote, after lifting dramatically with the removal of Rudd, has stalled during the campaign at 38 per cent, but huge regional differences have kept Labor in front on second preferences and in the seat count under Gillard.

Labor's most questionable strategic decision appears to have been to call the election so soon after Rudd's demise, denying Gillard the opportunity to build her own image as Prime Minister and put a distance between the removal of the old prime minister and the election of the new.

In Queensland, where there are most seats at risk, Gillard has not baulked or flinched when faced with the inevitable questions about Rudd's removal.

Faced with Banquo's ghost or Duncan's blood, Gillard has not quailed as Lady Macbeth but ploughed on in a tight contest. If she loses there will be no mercy and the danger for her will be that if she just scrapes back there will be destabilising retribution that will blight her government.

Gillard's performance in the campaign deserves better.

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