Even people close to Julia Gillard now concede that Labor's chances of re-election have all but evaporated, and that the primary task of Labor is to govern on, perhaps for as long as 18 months, in such a manner as to reduce the scale of debacle, and so as to best position Labor for a 2015 post-Gillard return bout with a by-now shop-soiled Tony Abbott.
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They can, in the meantime, hope for the miracle that a change of mind about Gillard and federal Labor would now represent. The polls show that voters have by now made up their minds about Gillard and her government and are unlikely to change them. Any change will not occur by mere argument, better marketing or communications, or even a run of good luck, because no one is actually listening any longer.
In Newtonian terms, a change of mind now depends on an exterior force, rather than anything Labor itself can do. It will not happen, for example, because the public comes to realise, as the Government hopes, that the carbon tax does not greatly change their personal finances or the state of the economy. Nor will it change as a result of tax cuts in July, or as a result of surplus budgeting (indeed, severe budget cuts could aggravate the loss of favour.)
It is probably too late for a change of leader to make a difference. Even less will the polls shift by mere patient plodding on, concentrating on ''the important things'' and ''refusing to be distracted'' by the day to day or the media cycle, as Gillard is pretending to do. That might work if people were still making up their minds about Labor, but they have made them up, and closed them.
Least of all can Labor win simply by increasing the amplitude of a scare campaign based around the supposed secret radicalism of Abbott, a supposed secret agenda to restore WorkChoices, or general public uncertainty and nervousness about change. Negative aint working, at least against Abbott. The public believes it has a reasonable fix on Abbott, in much the same way that it believes it has a reasonable fix on Gillard; the opinion polls suggest that the public does not like, or trust, either much. At almost any pinch, by now, however, it would prefer Abbott rather than more of the same from Gillard and Swan. At the least the magnetic forces of repulsion (away from Labor) are so far operating much more strongly than the Liberal forces of attraction.
On the evidence, the impending defeat will be catastrophic, raising questions about whether Labor, as presently constructed, can survive as a national political force. With swings half the size encountered in Queensland and NSW, Labor could easily lose more than half its (present 72) seats; indeed it is possible to imagine it with only about 20 and at risk of having fewer members than the National Party. Such a swing could well take out most of the existing potential leaders of the party, virtually ensuring that a return is more than an election away.
A party braced for certain defeat uses different tactics than a party hoping that a miracle can take it just over the line. If Labor has a chance, it may be worth gambling all on it, even at the risk of aggravating a landslide. When strategists believe there is no hope at all, tactics shift to:
■ ''sandbagging'' seats which can be saved against a general swing;
■ rallying the faithful so as to brake the landslide, rather than seeking to attract new support;
■ a focus on policies and programs which appease less angry critics;
■ preparing alibis and the illusion of a noble but lost cause; and
■ planting landmines designed to blow up on the new government.
Both parties have long had sophisticated marginal seats strategies, for contests where intervention might make a difference. A party on the make is working over marginals which can be taken from the other side; a party on the defensive is trying only to protect some of what it has. The play becomes more professional every year and these days involves clever use of social media. But in Labor the cool judgment required has become compromised by demands of factional favourites for special attention not justified by local circumstances.
A party facing inevitable loss tries at least to rally back its own. Labor has lost support, in about equal proportion, to its right and its left; it has tended to be relaxed about losing votes to the Greens, arguing that these come back, in any event, as preferences. But diminution of its left has hurt the party's momentum, energy and stock of ideas. As dangerously, some disillusioned former followers no longer have any feeling of residual loyalty to Labor. Put bluntly, they no longer agree that a Gillard government, however bad, is better than an Abbott government. They see no difference, and do not even have an emotional pull to Labor. It is, for example, hard to argue Labor policies on refugees, or indigenous affairs, or Afghanistan are ''better'' than Liberal policies.
Policies designed to repair relationships and to give traditional supporters some reason to return to the fold are quite different from policies designed to win over Liberal-leaning voters. It may well be, for example, that the primary appeal of a ''free'' dental service is to essentially Labor constituencies.
Promising, and starting off such a plan, even if the long-term figures appear horrendous, has a secondary effect. Removing any existing, if that is what Abbott does, will be unpopular; failure to remove it may well compromise his capacity to deliver on other promises within budget constraints. Policies in areas such as this can also be used to create a legend of ''good things'' done by the Gillard Government, often remembered, like good things done by Whitlam, long after bad things are forgotten.
A political scorched-earth policy seeks to encumber the next government and restrict its flexibility. Howard's inclination, as prime minister, to distribute surpluses in tax cuts came not only from a belief in small government and in the bribability of voters, but from a desire to leave nothing in the till for Labor to spend. It is constitutionally hard to bind future governments, but easy to expose them to unpopularity, and the risk of damages from contractors.
Richard Farmer, journalist and one-time Labor staffer, used to tell a tale of working on the drafting of Barry Unsworth's campaign speech in 1988, when (after the popular years of Wran) NSW Labor had become deeply unpopular. Party organisers came in with more and more announcements and promises they wanted included in the speech.
Farmer argued against them: NSW could not afford to deliver them and the promises were economically irresponsible, he said.
To which the response was that there was no prospect whatever of their being implemented, because a Liberal victory was certain. The only purpose of the promises was to limit the size of the disaster.
Assuming no defections or by-elections, Labor has probably two budgets before walking the plank. It might be better, from its point of view (if not necessarily the nation's) being politically realistic with both.
Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large.