Early election hangs in the balance
As 2009 drew to a close, Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd looked to be right on top of the political game.
Admittedly, the Liberal and National parties had just kyboshed his government's Emissions Trading Scheme, but the political price paid for this was the collapse of Malcolm Turnbull's leadership at the hands of the coalition's ultra-conservatives.
The new Liberal leader was now Tony Abbott who, most commentators assumed, was surely unelectable.
So ascendant did Mr Rudd appear to be that the prime minister and his government enjoyed January as something of a holiday, leaving the debate to Tony Abbott as he sought to consolidate his leadership and deal with a couple of by-elections within the Liberal heartland. Ominously for Mr Rudd, Mr Abbott did really well in these contests.
Indeed, Abbot has proven to be a formidable opponent, and his opposition team have managed to score a series of political points by highlighting some of the Rudd government's big political failures, including the disastrous roof insulation program, its poorly thought out health reform and the consequent announcement that it would not be building the 200 child care centres it had promised during the 2007 election.
Amidst all of this has been an expectation that the Rudd government would seek an early election primarily to do something about an increasingly obstructionist Senate. It is in the context of this expectation that the changed political environment since Tony Abbott's ascendancy to the Liberal leadership is so significant.
If the opinion polls that have all been indicating a slide in support for Labor are taken in to account alongside this growing perception that the Rudd government has lost its dominance over the policy debate, the conclusion has to be reached that there is a real danger for Labor that it could lose an election called in August or September this year.
Most political commentators baulk at the idea of the Rudd administration being a one-term government on the grounds that the last one-term government was Jim Scullin's faction-riven administration that completely failed to cope with the Great Depression back in 1931.
Even Gough Whitlam's erratic administration of 1972-74 managed to win a second term. The conventional wisdom appears to be dubious assumption that Rudd will win a second term because that's what happens in Australian politics.
Perhaps this is the case, but Labor would be foolish to rely on this rather ephemeral argument alone. Indeed, the budget indicated a strong sense of the Rudd campaign revisiting the theme of functional, if conservative economic management as the defining standard. Parading as an 'economic conservative' served Rudd well in the 2007 election campaign.
The latest twist in the direction of Labor's policy narrative goes back to this theme, presumably in a bid to negate or gloss over the policy failures that occurred as a result of the fiscal largess associated with the government's approach to the global financial crisis.
In short, Labor is in big electoral trouble. It is falling in the polls. Worse still, it is falling in the polls in states where it matters such as Queensland, where the proposed 'super profits tax' to be levied on the mining sector is causing some disquiet even amongst allies like Labor premier Anna Bligh.
In the light of this, it is worth remembering the following: while it is possible for Mr Rudd to call a double dissolution election in August or September this year, he could also wait as long as 16 April 2011 to have a simultaneous House of Representatives and half-Senate election.
With the benefit of hindsight, Rudd really ought to have called an election the moment his ETS was defeated in the Senate back in 2009. Given his craven attitude to going early back then, he would now probably be well advised to avoid going to the polls sooner rather than later. The word around the traps, however, is that Mr Rudd isn't very good at taking advice.
Dr Nick Economou is senior lecturer for Politics at Monash University and he is a regular media commentator on Australian politics.
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