Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott. Photo: Andrew Meares
Almost everyone seems to have given Labor's chances away. On Thursday, a major betting agency paid out those who had backed a Coalition victory, though one can, I think, still get a bet on Labor at 11-1. That is pretty good odds in a two-horse race, but I cannot see the bookies being rushed even if some opinion polls still have the contest reasonably tight.
I have been wrong so many times in 40 years with my electoral or political predictions that hardly anything can these days surprise or particularly dismay. My view, six months out, was that Labor, under Julia Gillard, would be lucky to retain 30 seats - might indeed lose even one in Canberra. I did not expect that Kevin Rudd would provide better long-term leadership for Labor, but thought that he could hardly do worse in the short term.
He has been outgamed and outplayed.
When Rudd did take over again, I was surprised by how popular the transition was, by the immediate impact he had on Labor's chances, and by the apparent effect it had on the momentum of Tony Abbott. Some of the early polls suggested that Labor even had a fighting chance of victory, particularly if it ran an effective campaign in the marginal seats.
A month ago, my guess was Labor would lose by 10 to 15 seats, a defeat, but hardly crushing, leaving the party well positioned to recover office in one or two terms, particularly if Abbott's leadership proved to be as bad as many, including on his own side, expected. A Labor win was possible but unlikely - perhaps a one-in-four chance.
Abbott appears to have since ground Rudd down, and my guess is the margin will be closer to 20 seats - a Parliament with perhaps 95 Coalition seats, three independents, and 52 Labor members - an effective majority of 43, and a minor landslide, hardly one of the proportions that Labor was facing under Gillard.
It should be remembered that if something like this is the result, Rudd will have justified the hopes Caucus put in him when, against its better judgment and sentiment, it gave Gillard the push. No one then hoped or expected that Rudd's supposed magic with the electorate could get the party over the line; what Caucus members were hoping was that Rudd might be able to do a better job in saving the furniture, including their own seats.
That being so, no one hoped or expected that Rudd would be prime minister after the election, regardless of the method by which a defeated and demoralised party regathered after the slaughter, big or small, to elect a new leader. For the moment Rudd's assurance that he had learnt from his crucifixion and resurrection, and that he would be, in future, far more consultative and more punctilious about using the cabinet machinery, were enough, given the charade had to last only until election day. Likewise with practical changes to policies, designed both to reorient the party into Rudd's image and as a ''free'' method of junking some disastrous positions. And, of course, Rudd and the leadership team would have a certain amount of leeway to craft symbolic policies, or opportunistic ones designed to catch the other side on the hop.
But if and when Labor loses on Saturday, it is likely there will be further considerable bitterness against Rudd. Not gratitude that he saved the party from an absolute drubbing. But anger that he gave away what became a considerable chance. And that he did so with just the sort of eccentricities, tin ear and lack of appreciation of others that had caused his initial downfall.
The fallout will bring back into the argument those whom he so comprehensively drubbed, but who, unlike him when he was drubbed in 2010, retired with such dignity as they could muster and did not say a critical word during the election campaign.
Gillard in particular has been saintly in her forbearance, given the leaking and sabotage she encountered during the 2010 campaign. But when it is all over, one will expect she will unleash, if only for the record. Her bitterness, and that of other colleagues, will be of Homeric proportions.
Immediately after the Second Coming, Rudd hit the ground running, if with conspicuous signs of consulting his cabinet as he made announcement after announcement.
There was his boat people policy - which was, at least initially, politically clever in how it wrongfooted the opposition and left it, at least for a while, unsure of how to criticise the policy. It appeared it might have neutralised an issue which several backbenchers had insisted was killing the party's chances in middle- and outer-metropolitan seats.
He castrated carbon taxes. There was some hurried rearrangement of the budget, which had the effect, initially at least, of putting the opposition on the hop not only about its own fiscal strategies, but the costs and outcomes of its own developed policy proposals.
There were efforts to sew up state agreements to retitled and much diluted Gonski offers on schools, or otherwise to wedge the opposition with the appearance of failing to support more investment in education.
And there was the cultivated impression that a Rudd government was not a continuation of an unpopular Gillard government, but a new government altogether. In significant respects, Rudd was himself campaigning against the Gillard government, and making it more difficult for Abbott to saddle him with responsibility for its alleged sins, or for its continuation or perfection of alleged sins of the earlier Rudd government. He was also, to a degree, campaigning against Labor itself, by pretending to be the outsider cleansing its stables (albeit unconvincingly given that he had Sam Dastyari at his side).
One problem with this, of course, was that if he gained distance from the Gillard government, he also found it difficult to ''own'' reasonably popular Gillard policies. Over the course of the campaign Rudd was slow to incorporate a story of Labor investment in schools into a narrative of his party as a forward-thinking ''leader'' party.
Indeed, there was a tendency, once Abbott abandoned efforts to craft a challenge on education, to treat education as a neutral issue. So, too, at least at first, with the national disability scheme, covered with Gillard fingerprints, even after its renaming.
For a considerable time Rudd was campaigning, virtually non-stop but without any material or narrative at all, other than his personality, imagined popularity, and supposed affinity with the electorate.
And if he was pulling the crowds it was going to his head, because there is little evidence that he, or those he was arranging around him in a very personalised campaign team, ever gave much attention to the feedback, the evidence the magic was not working quite as of old - in primary part because he could not so readily shake off his record.
He had done a Peter Beattie of sorts: acknowledging that he had made serious mistakes in the past. But Beattie had done more than admit that he had learnt from the errors, misjudgments and mismanagement; he was the one to insist he, if only from the experience garnered from those mistakes, was just the one to put it right.
Rudd doesn't put things right. Or promise to. And he has shown little real evidence of penance or even of ''getting it''.
That has been disguised to a considerable extent by his being occupied almost entirely with politicking over the past few weeks: the government of Australia has been ticking over quietly, being managed fairly capably by bureaucrats. By the time government is back to normal in, say, February, the Commonwealth will have been operating largely on autopilot for about 10 months.
Among the questions sore losers will be asking is what thought, and by whom, went into inane policy on the run such as the proposal about a tax-free zone in the Northern Territory, a shift of navy headquarters from Sydney to Brisbane sometime in the next 40 years, or expressed concerns about Chinese investors buying up the farm.
These obviously silly policies cost Labor credibility among its own supporters, but also in circles such as the bureaucracy and the lobbies, disposed to be be normally publicly neutral about Australia's politicians.
Such hare-brained stuff sends out an important message: that the party is simply going through the motions and no longer even cares about being taken seriously. It was the more ill-judged because it was unlikely that any of those would have done much to garner votes.
Rudd's boat people policies have seriously alienated about 20 per cent of the electorate. Perhaps he stopped the haemorrhage - though it is likely that people motivated by the issue were always going to vote against Labor - but his approach was so extreme that perhaps 20 per cent of voters, whose ultimate support has been taken for granted by Labor, have felt physically ill about the policy, and uninclined to lift a finger to help Labor from its fate.
Meanwhile, something strange was happening. Abbott was banging away, not effectively, but serving to remind everyone of the supposed badness of the Gillard government, and Rudd's role in all of the supposed disasters. Rudd's distancing of himself was working less well - all the more as the man who once had limitless energy was becoming more obviously tired, cranky and disconnected.
But Abbott was adopting more and more of Gillard's policies - the policies which had supposedly brought Australia to rack and ruin. There is no effective difference between Labor and Coalition policies on education, health, social welfare, foreign affairs, defence, immigration and refugees. Only tiny points of difference magnified, unconvincingly, to sound significant.
Rudd, who had promised to sell a positive message, has been resoundingly negative - with warnings of how Abbott had a secret agenda to cut spending to the bone. Over this week, however, it has become obvious there is not a halfpenny's worth of difference between Labor and the Coalition even on fiscal policy, fiscal targets, or, probably, contraction of the public sector.
Abbott and his shadow treasurer Joe Hockey have simply put themselves a millimetre to the more austere side, and, on these issues, campaigned primarily on ''who do you trust?'' And Rudd doesn't have a team to be trusted.
Since Rudd is not campaigning on any sort of record - even the evidently Coalition-endorsed record on health, schools, welfare, defence and foreign affairs - the issues have inevitably become the Coalition's issues, attacks on the record of boat people, waste, mismanagement, carbon taxes, mining taxes and questions about trust. Rudd might have done a reasonable job in reinforcing public doubts about Abbott, but at a cost of reinforcing the doubts about himself, his personality, and his and Labor's record. He has been outgamed and outplayed - in a contest that Abbott has succeeded in making of very narrow compass.
Perhaps - the bookies say this is a one in 12 chance - Labor will win, and I (and hundreds of others) will look silly again, on the scale of 1993 when Keating completely defied the odds. But the momentum seems all the other way, and by now, it is not only Rudd who is looking like a loser, but most of his crew.