Leaders battle it out in a race to win trust
Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott face a common challenge before the September 14 election - to win the trust of disengaged voters who neither like nor trust them.
There may 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.
Mr Abbott starts as favourite, with the 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.
Ms Gillard is the underdog, but seems fortified by having survived all manner of threats, internal and external, in the past 12 months.
Her decision to remove one source of speculation - the election date - 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 Mr Abbott she is hoping to win strategic reward.
The 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 - Mr Abbott's ''Hope, Reward and Opportunity'' versus Ms Gillard's ''Jobs, Opportunity and Fairness''.
Ms 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 Mr Abbott is a risk.
Mr Abbott's past success has been singularly focused on attacking the government's - and Ms Gillard's - record. He has to make this contest about more than the past and spell out how he would deliver less tax and 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 Ms Gillard is seen to deliver. While this potential is greater in Queensland because of the early unpopularity of Campbell Newman's government, it is at least matched by the prospect of Labor sustaining heavy losses in New South Wales and Tasmania, where some observers predict a wipeout.
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 Ms Gillard to remove one source of instability - and why Mr Abbott welcomed a dose of certainty.
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