Federal Politics

Respect the key issue in battle for votes

The two leaders are now neck and neck in the opprobrium stakes, writes Michael Gordon.

JULIA GILLARD and Tony Abbott face a common challenge before the September 14 election - to win the respect of disengaged voters who neither like nor trust them.

There might have been occasions when two leaders who inspire such negative reactions in the suburbs have faced off, but they do not come readily to mind.

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Abbott starts as favourite, with national polls pointing to an emphatic Coalition victory, but he has one big problem - a seemingly entrenched disapproval rating of more than 60 per cent across all age groups and states at the end of 2012.

Gillard is the underdog, but seems fortified by having survived all manner of threats, internal and external, in the past year.

Her decision to remove one source of speculation - the date of the election - is all about restoring credibility and rebuilding a sense of certainty among the disaffected and the cynical. There are enough of them in a handful of seats in western Sydney alone to sweep Labor from power.

This was an unprecedented call for an almost unprecedented challenge, as bold as exercising her ''captain's pick'' to secure Nova Peris in the Senate. In ceding tactical advantage to Abbott, she is hoping to win strategic reward.

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Another common ground is a recognition that what voters want is cause for optimism and confidence in the face of rising cost of living pressures and job insecurity. Hence, the early slogans: Abbott's ''Hope, Reward and Opportunity'' versus Gillard's ''Jobs, Opportunity and Fairness''.

Gillard's challenge is to give credibility to her slogan by detailing how she intends to pay for the big-ticket items - her ''crusade'' on education and the National Disability Insurance Scheme - and to convince voters that Abbott is a risk.

Neck and neck ... Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.
Neck and neck ... Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. Photo: Getty

Abbott's past success has been focused on attacking the government's, and Gillard's, record. He has to make this contest about more than the past and spell out how he would deliver fewer taxes, less regulation and more competence in government - and, yes, how he would stop the boats.

Geographically, the picture is complex. Labor's vote in 2010 was at historical lows in Queensland and Western Australia, suggesting some scope for gains if Gillard is seen to deliver. While this potential is greater in Queensland because of the unpopularity of Campbell Newman's government, it is at least matched by the prospect of Labor sustaining heavy losses in NSW and Tasmania, where some observers predict a wipeout.

Called the election ... Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Called the election ... Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

This was always going to be a year that promised surprises and uncertainty, including leadership speculation on both sides of politics. This is why it makes sense for Gillard to remove one source of instability - and why Abbott welcomed a dose of certainty.