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Rudd's asylum recovery

New poll numbers suggest Kevin Rudd's PNG plan has dramatically change views on Labor's ability to manage the asylum problem, but may not have won over many voters.

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A couple of years ago I was sitting in a recreation room at Tarin Kowt when (then) prime minister Julia Gillard came on the telly. It was as if a freezing draft had suddenly swept in from the Hindu Kush. The reaction from the soldiers was both visceral and casual. There was silence as she began talking about a defence issue and flanked by others nodding enthusiastically at her words.

Then, about 20 seconds in, came the first comment - a simple, four-letter swear word. Someone else asked, rhetorically ''what would she know?'' A couple of others quickly volunteered their opinions but the audience had gone back to doing other things.

At some point previously these soldiers had already made up their minds about Gillard. More information wasn't going to change anything. They had a ready-made framework that they were using to decode the new information. Extra facts were simply pushed around to see if they fitted. If they could be incorporated without too much difficulty, the established border simply became stronger.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with his wife Therese Rein on a surprise visit to Australian troops  in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with his wife Therese Rein on a surprise visit to Australian troops in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. Photo: Gary Ramage

The military's often thought of as a conservative institution, but that doesn't mean everyone in it votes Liberal. Aside from former military lawyer Mike Kelly, over in WA a former SAS officer (who was with the force that boarded the Tampa in 2001) sits as a Labor parliamentarian, and there are many others dotted around the country.

The battalion that was serving in Afghanistan that day is based in Townsville, your archetypical swinging seat. Until 2007, the votes for one party or another had ebbed and flowed with the change of government. It's the sort of electorate Labor pretends it has in its sights now Kevin Rudd is PM again.

Those soldiers in Tarin Kowt had already made their assessment of Gillard long before she appeared on the TV, but now Rudd's completed his flying visit it seems worth considering if he's changed the equation. That's what Labor's desperately hoping. At the coming election Labor will ask the electorate to do just one thing: ''Give Kevin a chance to finish the job''. As a campaign strategy it's brilliant.

It harnesses all the residual anger that's been directed at Labor by emphasising that Rudd didn't make those mistakes while, at the same moment, he's wrapped himself in all the trappings of incumbency. He's the one travelling the world stage as PM while concurrently conducting an insurgency against the last three years of government. Rudd's trump card? Tony Abbott's unpopularity and negativity. And it appears to be working.

The people who will actually decide the election are what the parties describe as ''low information voters''.

Labor appointed Rudd Mark II because it believed he might be able to swing enough of these people to prevent a wipe-out. Rudd believes with more time he can convince enough of them to switch back to win. At this point, of course, it's tempting to insert the line, ''we're not dealing with reality here''. That's because it appears as if Labor's deficit is so great it's not going to be able to catch up. Doing this would be a massive mistake.

Nevertheless, the Coalition still doesn't appear to have grasped the nature of this new challenge to the orthodoxy that it's ahead. The people who will decide this election may think they've made up their minds - but they haven't. Not quite.

Polling by Galaxy over the weekend demonstrates the enormous degree of volatility in the electorate. Forget those 50:50 polls; in fact, ignore them all. The polls are accurate because they tell us exactly what is going on, and this is that we don't know what's happening. So, if we ignore the irrelevant predictions about ''who would you vote for if an election was called today'', what can we determine about the political scene.

Let's begin with Labor. The first point is that the ''bounce'' coming from the leadership change is (according to brilliant reasoning by marktheballot) exactly 5.6 per cent. That's not enough to deliver victory. But it will save a lot of Labor seats and that's why backbenchers want to rush to an election now, next week, within a fortnight … just before voters remember what Rudd's really like.

Rudd, however, is focused on winning. And if he can't do that then he wants to attend another G20 meeting and chair the UN Security Council. So stuff them! He'll call the election when he's good and ready. Besides which, he still believes he can win. And there's good reason to believe he can. The message that comes through from that rushed visit to Tarin Kowt has nothing to do with the reality of our deployment in Afghanistan. That's a failure.

But it has everything to do with impressions and framing. What do the images that stick in our memory say? Well, that Rudd ''gets'' national security. He's fighting on ground the Coalition had previously claimed as its own.

That's why Rudd's got away with blatantly ignoring Labor's rule changes that were less than a week old. He was meant to accept caucus' recommendation for the ministry, remember? Well that's out. Rudd will keep doing whatever he wants because it's keeping the Coalition unbalanced with Abbott seemingly without answers.

Abbott needs to turn positive and fight fire with fire; otherwise he'll get burned. The swinging voters want an upbeat reason to get behind one side or the other. But he's not presenting it.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.