It was going to be as bad as 1996 (when Labor lost 31 seats), a sombre Stephen Smith gravely warned us at the beginning of the ABC election night coverage.
Smith ignored that a few months earlier Labor was facing its worst election defeat, at least as bad as the 2011 NSW State election.
How had this occurred when the Government was competent and economy was going well? The 2010 hung Parliament does not of itself provide the answer. The answer lies in the elusive concept of trust.
The 2010 coup against Rudd destroyed the public benefit Gillard should have enjoyed as the first female Prime Minister. In the 2010 negotiations to form Government, the breaking by Gillard of an explicit campaign promise not to introduce a carbon tax caused the electorate to feel it had been betrayed by Labor. Gillard never regained that trust.
Gillard and Swan lacked communications skills to sell Labor’s positive economic record. They exacerbated the trust deficit by absurd promises such as committing to an early return to surplus. This was as stupid as it was dishonest and the mining tax was redesigned in a way that raised miniscule revenue.
Because Gillard lacked credibility, Abbott was able to perpetuate the lie that Labor was saddling future generations with massive debt.
The position of minority Government was always less than ideal but the Bracks, Beattie and Rann governments had successfully managed the transition to majority government.
Gillard deserves credit for her legislative achievements. That said, Abbott persuaded the public the Parliament was in chaos – the Thomson and Slipper imbroglios leant credence to these claims.
The risk inherent in Rudd’s return to the leadership in June was that it exacerbated the perception the government was hopelessly divided and chaotic. The fiasco in March when Rudd had refused to run and the impression that he was not a team player and everything was “always about Kevin” fuelled further public frustration and anger with Labor.
The government had become a soap opera. The impression of instability and chaos was too embedded in the electorate’s mind for a restored Rudd to do more than save some furniture.
Upon resuming the Prime Ministership, Rudd governed with a deft touch and the capacity to outflank his opponents.
He neutralised issues such as refugee boat arrivals and Labor’s refusal to reform under Gillard. The harshness of the asylum seeker policy likely cost Labor some primary support and possibly the seat of Melbourne. However, “stopping the boats” was virtually unheard during the campaign. Rudd also neutralised the broken promise about the carbon tax.
If Rudd the Prime Minister matched best expectations, Rudd the campaigner disappointed.
In contrast to 2007, Rudd’s campaign was patchy. The Labor slogan “A New Way” was absurd for a Government in power for six years amid such acrimony.
From day one of the campaign, Rudd faced vitriolic attack from the Murdoch media. The tabloids were simply offensive propaganda sheets openly campaigning against the Labor government and slanting coverage to that end.
This made Rudd’s task of selling Labor’s complicated message that “we have done a great job even though we have been at war” all the more difficult. The most repeated and challenging question he was asked was why should voters support you when your own party sacked you?
Rudd, who had showcased his campaigning cred for many grateful MPs, did not hit the ground running.
He was damaged by media criticism that he cheated by taking notes in the first debate with Abbott. It was a mistake that should not have happened in a professionally run campaign.
Another mistake was Rudd’s poor judgement posting on social media a photo (selfie) of a shaving cut. This action struck the wrong note and fed into media accusations of narcissism.
The Northern Territory taxation” thought bubble” damaged Rudd and there was not one vote in it. The criticism that he was making policy on the run for media grabs had validity.
Critically in the second last week of the campaign Rudd was admonished by officials for over-reaching in his description of costings. The media treated this as a far more serious criticism than it was but with Labor trailing in the polls and struggling for traction, it could not afford setbacks.
There are legitimate criticisms of Rudd’s campaign performance but he still had the capacity to connect and to inspire. He was unrelenting in his efforts to differentiate Labor from the ideological attacks which the LNP would make on services while they enacted their unaffordable PPL scheme and foolish policies including buying Indonesian fishing boats.
On occasions, Rudd showed his magic. Perhaps his finest performance was on QandA where he displayed vision and passionately spoke to the issue of marriage equality.
Abbott’s campaign was disciplined but far from brilliant. He made a number of foolish comments which could have derailed his campaign if the media wasn’t pre-disposed to his perceived inevitable victory. Abbott prevailed because of the damage which Labor had inflicted on itself and the leg-up of the Murdoch press.
Despite the difficulties in selling his message, Rudd was indefatigable defending Labor economic credentials and attacking the fitness of Abbott and the LNP to govern. The result of the election is proof that he was effective doing this and the dire predictions of a Labor wipe out were wrong.
In June before the return of Rudd to the leadership, Labor was looking at about an 8% swing and a devastating loss of 40 or even more seats. It is no exaggeration to say that such electoral decimation would have imperilled Labor’s very survival
Labor will lose around 15 seats on a swing of about 3%. Importantly every Labor Minister has held their seat. This result confirms Labor made entirely the right decision to return to Rudd. On this occasion, saving some furniture was enough. It can now face the future confident of its history and determined not to repeat the faults of its recent past.