Billy Adams: The gloves are off

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Having dispatched Gillard, Rudd now turns his sights on the head-kicker of Australian politics

With the unmarried feminist atheist gone, voters now have the choice between two family men whose deep Christian faith is etched on their public personas. Photo / Getty Images
With the unmarried feminist atheist gone, voters now have the choice between two family men whose deep Christian faith is etched on their public personas. Photo / Getty Images

For three years the big-hitting Oxford Blue and wily white-haired wonder from Queensland shared the same political punching-bag.

Kevin Rudd got to deliver the knockout blow on Julia Gillard, reclaiming a job Tony Abbott has coveted with even greater rage and missionary zeal.

Until this week, Australia's staunchly conservative Opposition leader had been Prime Minister-in-waiting, strolling all but unopposed into The Lodge.

Now he's in the fight of his political life, pitted against a slippery opponent who has not only grabbed the high ground of office, but cast himself in the more envied role - that of plucky underdog.

If Abbott endured restless slumber on Wednesday night, it might have been due to the Ghost of Kevin 07 urging him to halt the relentless negativity.

If he picked up the television remote, there would have been blanket analysis on the Second Coming and a resurrection that, for some, is scarcely more plausible than the one enacted by the greatest underdog of them all, Mr J.

Christ.

Had Jesus walked into a suburban Australian shopping centre in recent weeks, he would have done well to generate the levels of public adoration directed at Rudd on his whistle-stop tour of once-safe Labor electorates deemed on the nose at the upcoming Federal election.

Voters who would have consigned the Australian Labor Party to a historical wipeout under Gillard go all weak at the knees in sight of her political nemesis.

Stolen kisses from old ladies who should know better; firm handshakes with tradies he'd struggle to have a yarn with; Chinese small business owners talking to him in Mandarin; selfies with giggling teenage schoolgirls.

The contrast of unconcealed contempt among parliamentary colleagues could hardly be more stark, even though no one can really pin down why a man so widely despised in Canberra retains so much affection beyond its corridors of power.

Rudd's brutal political assassination by his own party in 2010 explains some of the love.

Many Australians regarded the removal of a popularly elected and presidential-style first-term Prime Minister as deplorable and, even worse, downright un-Australian.

That the reaction to it happening again this week has been far more muted highlights the perception in some quarters of a wrong finally put to right.

The Rudd Resurrection also fits nicely into the wider underdog narrative now approaching a classic and suitably unpredictable climax.

Abbott may never have actually been Prime Minister, but it has seemed a foregone conclusion for so long that Rudd can now position him as the disliked incumbent.

Having dispatched Australia's most unpopular politician, Rudd has now turned his attention to exposing the weaknesses of an Opposition leader who once again replaces her on the bottom rung of the political popularity ladder.

Voters have failed to warm to the aggressive Abbott, a former Oxford University boxer who became, in the words of commentator David Marr, "one of the great head-kickers of Australian politics".

Friends and foe alike have applauded the effectiveness of his relentless Attack! Attack! Attack! approach against the Gillard-led minority Government.

It may have failed to block her legislation, but has succeeded in trashing public support for Labor - which has fallen below 30 per cent in recent opinion polls and fuelled panic among the parliamentary rank and file.

With those dire figures, up to 35 lower house MPs face losing their jobs and the Coalition could seize control of the Senate. A defeat of that magnitude could render the party irrelevant for years.

On Wednesday, less than three months out from the election, Labor succumbed to its survival instinct.

"We were looking at a result which bordered on catastrophic," said Richard Marles, a Victorian MP who feared losing the seat of Corio, which he holds with a margin of 13 per cent.

But recent party polling suggested Labor could save 17 electorates in NSW and Queensland alone if Rudd was reinstated.

Most polling experts believe the latest coup will head off a landslide, while MPs like Marles believe the election may even be winnable.

"I really think that this is not about saving furniture, this is actually about contesting the main event," he told the ABC.

It's not much of an underdog story if the final act revolves around damage limitation. Which is why you can be sure KRudd is in it to win it. Nothing in his make-up or past history suggests otherwise.

Ask Julia, who saw him off three times, yet he kept coming back for more; or Kim Beazley, the party elder from whom he first snatched the leadership.

Or John Howard, who lost his own safe seat in the Kevin 07 election that ended his 11 years as PM.

Each time Rudd prevailed, despite having no factional support or traditional power base to draw on. Colleagues regard him as over-rated, arrogant, narcissistic and treacherous.

As prime minister first time around he flew into rages, micro-managed and shut them out of decision making, yet the support of another group - the electorate - ultimately held most sway. Almost twice as many voters preferred him over Gillard as leader.

But can Rudd pull off his greatest victory to date?

To do so, he'll have to win back former Labor voters sick not only of his own party's endless back-stabbing, but unprecedented levels of vitriol polluting Australia's political debate.

Much of it has been directed at Gillard, who was subjected to sexist abuse which supporters believed to be part of a concerted vilification campaign by politicians and sections of the media.

Andrew Oakeshott, one of the independent MPs who propped up the Gillard government, bemoans the community consequences.

"I have been shocked, frankly, over the last three years to meet ugly Australia and to see the width and depth of ugly Australia," he said.

Both Rudd and Abbott are widely regarded as complicit in the ongoing deterioration of public discourse; part of a system seemingly held hostage to the demands of rolling 24-hour news and the priority of winning every soundbite. While Rudd and his supporters were accused of wreaking havoc from within, Abbott failed to shake perceptions of misogyny and sexism. He gave one speech in front of protesters' placards deriding Gillard as a "witch" and a "bitch".

"I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man (Abbott)," Australia's first female PM famously said in parliament last year. "If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn't need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror."

With the unmarried feminist atheist gone, voters now have the choice between two family men whose deep Christian faith is etched on their public personas.

When Abbott congratulated Rudd on regaining the top job, there were handshakes, smiles and even a warm embrace with Coalition deputy leader Julie Bishop.

But the gloves have come off.

Coalition strategists concede many disenchanted Labor voters will return to Rudd, ruling out safe ALP seats they had hoped were within range.

His strong support among immigrant voters is also likely to make Labor more competitive, particularly in the traditional battleground areas of western Sydney.

Not surprisingly, the Coalition has already launched attack ads in a bid to stall any momentum.

They're made up of library footage featuring newly-resigned Labor ministers offering candid views on their unloved colleague. A psychopath. Maniac with a Giant Ego. And so on.

It was no coincidence that the Rudd clan turned up at Thursday's swearing in ceremony, where the newly-anointed prime minister posed afterwards for photos holding his toddler granddaughter.

The image was of a happy, stable and united family, so at odds with prevailing political sentiment and the at-home circumstances of his predecessor.

If that point of difference helped win over traditional voters "spooked" by Gillard's more unconventional lifestyle, Rudd hopes Gen Y-ers who backed him so strongly in 2007 will listen to his plea for a second chance.

And then there's Tony. While everyone's talking about Kevin, Rudd wants to make the election All About Abbott.

He will waste no time painting the former aspiring priest nicknamed the "mad monk" as the one who's unhinged and unreliable.

And there will be pressure to engage Abbott on substantive debates, emphasising what strategists see as Rudd's superior grasp of policy issues.

Rudd's former press secretary Lachlan Harris believes education, health, jobs and a renewed commitment to climate change will form the basis of the reinstated PM's election campaign.

But all those efforts will be in vain unless he finds a new approach to dealing with the entrenched issue of asylum seekers.

"If the question on election day is, 'who's going to stop the boats', Rudd's lost," Harris told the ABC. "He has to somehow take that question off the agenda. It's one of his biggest vulnerabilities and I think he'll try and use his skill on the international stage to do something about it, but it's a tough call."

So let the fight begin. Rudd v Abbott. Or could there be a final, dramatic twist?

Another underdog, the progressive, Malcolm Turnbull, continues to wait in the wings, presiding over the Opposition's communications portfolio. Like Rudd, he was knifed as leader in a spill that elevated Abbott and propelled Australian politics into its current death spiral.

Should the new PM's bounce in the polls be large and long-lasting, some Liberal supporters yearn for an 11th hour return of Turnbull, who remains twice as popular with voters as his replacement.

The election they expected to get in 2010, in 2013? Too far-fetched? Maybe, but don't bet on it.

- NZ Herald

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