Opposition Leader Tony Abbott greets Liberal candidate Fiona Scott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
One of the better cartoons of the week was on the front page of The Australian on Thursday. It had an indignant Tony Abbott pointing at Kevin Rudd and saying, ''I will not be lectured about sex appeal by that man.'' I think I know how he felt.
Abbott may or may not be a misogynist, as Julia Gillard claimed, but he certainly is a sexist in the ordinary blokey sense, and about as wickedly. Which is to say not very wickedly, and, in any event, these days well (if still insufficiently) aware that some of its manifestations will set off a tidal wave of abuse, not least from any number of Labor saints with a particular gift for the double standard.
Assuming (and I am prepared reluctantly to do that in spite of my commonsense) that saying of a woman that she has sex appeal is damning proof of a belief that she should be barefoot in the kitchen, breastfeeding her many babies, I am not convinced that its manifestation is the best possible proof that Tony Abbott is unfit for public office. Even if one thinks his statement utterly shocking to all women, and all right-thinking men, I should think that the smarter ploy from a political rival such as Rudd would be to leave condemnation unsaid. This is in line with the general principle that one should never disturb a competitor while he (or she) is digging a hole. It also goes to the idea that it is never a good idea to state the bleedin' obvious, lest your doing so makes the third party discount it as possibly partisan.
As it happens, Abbott can probably afford to make several stumbles in a day, to lose momentum, and to get distracted by trivial and unimportant blunders over and over again. He's in front, after all, and that is not entirely his fault.
By contrast, Rudd is behind - with no present signs of catching up - and needs every possible opportunity to state a case for Rudd Labor, whatever, if anything, that is. And whatever, if anything it is, it is not pointing out the deficiencies of Abbott, nor painting him as some sort of monster in disguise waiting for power to pounce on the widows and orphans, or delivering a daily sermon on his eccentricities and minor shortcomings. Heavens, doing so might draw attention to those of Rudd. Nor does it consist of close parsing of opposition statements to prove they have retained a degree of flexibility in their statements of future intention.
All of these might be the case against the Coalition, or against Abbott. It does not necessarily explain why one should vote for Rudd Labor as opposed to, say, the Palmer Party , the Katter Party or the Greens. Labor does not deserve to win just to not be Abbott or the Coalition.
All that Labor would be claiming in such a case is that they are a slightly better team of managers, slightly more fit to preside over, but not much influence, the course of affairs. They would not be arguing a program of coherent things they would do in power (other than the distribution of some local bribes or inducements), nor a philosophy they would apply to the resolution of problems.
Only the most utter Labor partisan could think that the public believes that federal Labor, or Rudd Labor, or Labor generally, is an organism that cultivates, nurtures and puts into position the best brains available for mere management of affairs. Certainly not at the moment. That's in part because of the failures of Rudd, then Gillard, then Rudd again to explain, sell, market and defend policies over the past six years. Instead they let go by default the proposition that Labor made a routine mess of almost every single aspect of public administration, not least with school halls and roof insulation. Abbott did such an effective - and unanswered - job on this that mere shorthand reference to such matters immediately puts into the mind of ordinary voters notions of waste, incompetence, mismanagement, ineptness, criminal negligence and profligacy, and, probably mateship, cronyism and corruption. No doubt the Labor champion will say that the media played its role in creating such perceptions, and perhaps it did, but
the impressions stuck because no one on the Labor side - including under Rudd Mark I - was answering the opposition's allegations.
After the Second Coming, Rudd told Parliament and the people that he was moving on from the relentless negativity of politics of recent years. He was going positive. Carping criticism, of the sort Abbott was supposed to embody, was now over. But in the past week, Rudd has been in purely negative mode. He has been explaining, unconvincingly, why Abbott should not be given the keys to the Lodge. But he has not been explaining why he should have them. Or, in the few cases where he has tried, he has spoken in tired, empty yesterday phrases while looking tired, empty, irritated and a man of yesterday. His manner, method, and content at Sunday's debate were dreary and uninspiring. Perhaps Abbott was as bad - certainly neither was surging through. But it was Rudd fluffing the opportunity.
Gone was his sex appeal - or was that charisma? - and that inexplicable magic he has at times shown with voters. When there, the audience wants you to succeed. When not - when flat - it is especially obvious and the look is of defeat and of going through the motions.
Gone was the somewhat endearing self-deprecating jokiness - the sort of a politician who might have got away with a trip because of what might be described as a senior's moment, or embarrassing Dad moment. And gone was any sense of mission - an indication that the slog, the repetition, the mud, the bastardry and the grit of politics is worth it, because when or if one can achieve power, one can make a difference to people's lives. Rudd has essentially stopped speaking to people - and, particularly, stopped appeal to their hearts as well as their intellects, their emotions as well as their hip pockets. Now he is speaking at them, and it shows both in his eyes, his face and in the lack of signs of connection coming back.
He is not promising a better world, and is only, unconvincingly, suggesting a personally better-off voter. There's a world of difference, even if you are not Aboriginal, or an asylum seeker, or a single mother, or a university student. There's no appeal to a sense of shared purpose, of mission, or even, of decency. (Perhaps that's because he has, for pragmatic reasons associated with the asylum seekers issue, been forced to abandon, as has the Opposition, even the basic human decencies.)
Is there a better example than his resurrection of the hoary old nonsense of a tax-free zone in the Northern Territory? The NT is already the most highly subsidised piece of Australia and - even leaving aside the problems of its indigenous population - the least efficiently, competently and ethically governed or managed. No population of white folk anywhere in Australia - even in Peppermint Grove or Vaucluse - has ever been propped up by taxpayers to a greater extent than the white folk of Darwin and Alice Springs . (For the cynic who might think of Canberra, the current differential is about 400 per cent.)
It is true that people on the populist side of the National Party - the Barnaby Joyce faction - had allowed a vaguely similar proposal to be floated; it was said to be under consideration by the Coalition front bench. And it is true that Abbott, while denying it as policy, tactically allowed it to be played with for a while. But even were the tax-free zone idea constitutionally possible - and it may not be - it would be economic nonsense of the worst type, and bound to be opposed by the more responsible majority of the Liberal Party as well as anyone in Labor aspiring to be regarded as economically literate. It would also, incidentally, compound indigenous disadvantage in the NT.
Rudd's willingness to promote such silliness - even in an election campaign, when any sacrifice might be justifiable - again raises questions whether there is any bottom to the man. Can even a sentimentalist convince herself that there is much to be gained from a Labor government if this is what is in store?
One can, of course, always find some policy - say the broadband scheme - on which one might prefer one party to another in some sort of transactional sense. But when does a true believer come to think that a party had pretty much deprived itself of a right to command any loyalty at all? Was it reached recently, for example, in NSW or does the party have yet to sink lower?
Once, Rudd seemed to radiate a nerdy humanist and religion-based idealism, desire for a better world, and appreciation of the fact that causing real and lasting change involved straightforwardness with the population.
That he also pretended to be hard-edged - practical as well as moral, intellectual as well as emotional, in part as a result of his administrative experience in Queensland, and in part from his experience as a diplomat - was also confidence-building. He was, it seemed to be suggested, no mere idle dreamer, but a realist with a heart and a soul.
His ruthless resolution of the asylum-seeker problem - and his resolute failure to level with the Australian people about the realities of people movement around the globe - has pretty much deprived him of capacity to call for support on moral grounds. The old Labor left, which departed over Tampa in 2001, has no occasion to return to Labor as a result of anything Rudd has said or done over the past year. Indeed, it has every reason to be further repelled. For many his ''pragmatism'' has pretty much resolved the question of whether Labor is even capable of reform if it wanted.
A substantial proportion of the population is implacably and irrationally hostile to asylum seekers. But a significant minority is ashamed and embarrassed about a bipartisan fantasy that Australia can simply fend them off by making their transition awful, horrible and inhumane.
Perhaps once some voters, despairing of the humanity of either of the main parties, could salve their consciences with an initial vote for the Greens, then give a preference to the less-distasteful alternative. I am encountering more and more people who say that they cannot, in good conscience, give a preference either to the Pharoah Party or the Herod Party. There once were lawful means of casting a valid, formal, vote, without passing on preferences to either Labor or Liberal, but after the 1996 Langer case in the High Court, the Howard government changed the Electoral Act to make such a vote informal. Some, however, will find this more palatable than giving any form of encouragement to a party doing anything that seems to them so immoral.
Some, desperate to appease their consciences, now suggest that the policy is focused not on repelling refugees, but on discouraging them from taking to boats in which they might drown. This rationalisation is thought by some to permit pretend agreement with the real problem - a shameful hostility among some in the population to the arrival of uninvited refugees in any form, accompanied by the belief that Australia can be some sort of fortress against problems in the wider world, some of which we have helped cause. In the short term, perhaps it can. But the price of that will be worse problems later. Perhaps by then, however, we will have found a person, on either side of politics, who can lead rather than pander to prejudice.