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Gillard Election Gloss Fades

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s campaign has been hit by a series of leaks. Is predecessor Kevin Rudd to blame?

Anthony Fensom

Glamorous magazine spreads aside, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s political lustre has faded significantly in the second week of election campaigning. With Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s Coalition hitting the lead for the first time on a two-party preferred basis, according to a new poll, can Gillard recover her gloss now that her political honeymoon is over?

Dogged by embarrassing leaks over her performance as deputy prime minister and relationship with the man she overthrew, Gillard’s brightest appearance in the second week of the campaign has been on the front cover of top-selling women’s magazine, Australian Women’s Weekly.

The magazine has offered Gillard some priceless publicity, along with being one of the few current mainstream publications where former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Abbott are not likely to rate much mention.

In a six-page interview and photo spread, Gillard tells the magazine’s readers that she has no regrets over her choices, could still end up marrying her live-in boyfriend and also smoked marijuana while at university. The Labor leader might have felt inclined to smoke something again after news broke Saturday that the Coalition was now ahead in the polls.

According to the latest Herald/Nielsen poll reported by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, the Coalition now leads Labor by 52 to 48 percent on a two-party preferred basis, a six percentage point swing against the government since the previous such poll a week earlier.

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Should the poll results be replicated on August 21, the Coalition would sweep to victory with a gain of 28 seats, 11 more than it requires to rule in its own right.

Labor’s primary vote was down six points to just 36 percent, with the Coalition’s up four points to 45 percent and the Greens steady on 12 percent. Gillard’s personal approval rating was also down, with her lead over Abbott cut to 49 percent to 41 percent as women voters started defecting.

Labor may have been comforted by the poll’s result that showed 69 percent thought it would be returned to office. It’s a feat which still seems more likely given that the last Australian government that failed to win re-election after one term was the Scullin government in 1931.

The bookmakers are still calling the election for Labor, with Centrebet offering $1.54 for a Labor win to $2.40 for the Coalition for every dollar outlayed; rival Betfair has Labor at $1.52 to $2.72. However, the general wisdom is that the ‘smart money’ doesn’t arrive until closer to polling day, and much of the recent betting has been on Abbott’s team.

Given the importance of maintaining the ‘underdog’ tag in Australia, Abbott was quick to tamp down speculation over the latest poll in a media conference held Saturday in Darwin, his first visit to the Northern Territory during the campaign.

‘Polls can go up and down…I’m looking at the field evidence and the field evidence is that this has been a bad government,’ he said.

Abbott will be hoping that voters still see Labor as the frontrunner, thereby giving their protest vote to the Opposition and increasing his chances of victory. The prospects of the Labor protest vote going to the Greens are also high, although with their support seemingly remaining steady at 12 percent it seems the swinging voters are leaning more towards the conservatives.

Writing in Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper, Nine Network political editor Laurie Oakes – ironically the man responsible for causing much damage to the Gillard campaign due to his reporting of some embarrassing leaks midweek – said Labor needed to put the focus back on the economy.

As The Diplomat reminded readers this week, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ and Oakes said the government had failed to remind voters of its successful record in steering the country through the worst global financial storm since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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‘Before Julia Gillard fired the starting gun for the election, the conventional wisdom was that economic management would quickly become the dominant issue in the campaign,’ he wrote. ‘It is a mark of how badly Labor is faring that this has not happened. Treasurer Wayne Swan travels the country talking about how well the economy is going but no one seems to take much notice.’

Critics of Labor’s economic record will point to the mismanagement of its economic stimulus package with the disastrous home insulation program and the wasteful school buildings spending. The government’s proposed new mining tax has sparked vehement opposition from the mining industry, with projects put on hold amid threats of a capital strike.

Gillard’s first act on assuming the leadership was to pledge to act on climate change, resolve the mining tax row and to return the budget to surplus by 2013. While the latest Treasury forecasts have made the latter goal achievable, Gillard’s widely disparaged ‘Citizen’s Assembly’ proposal to address climate change policy and the renewal of the mining industry’s campaign against a rebranded tax have shown the inadequacy of her solutions.

Friend or foe?

Amid the row over the Rudd-Gillard leaks, reports Thursday that the former prime minister had been admitted to a Brisbane hospital over acute abdominal pain again put the spotlight back on Labor’s unwanted man.

According to the Australian Financial Review, Queensland is currently Labor’s worst-performing state behind Western Australia, and Rudd’s dumping by the Victoria-based Gillard apparently has not helped improve sentiment in the typically conservative eastern state.

In a statement released Friday, Rudd said he was prepared to join the Labor campaign outside his own electorate ‘as appropriate’ in support of Gillard’s campaign. The offer came after Rudd’s previous refusal to comment on national issues as he campaigned in his local south Brisbane electorate.

Ironically, accepting support from the man she dumped may be key to Gillard’s election, but it will be a bitter pill to swallow. The current Labor leader has stated that Rudd will be offered a senior position if Labor is re-elected, and he will be making an appearance at Labor’s official campaign launch in Brisbane on August 16.

However, any move to remind voters of Rudd risks also reminding them why he was removed from office by his own party, confusing Gillard’s message of ‘moving forward’ and not dwelling on past mistakes.

Rudd has been accused of being the source of recent damaging leaks against Gillard, with former Labor leader Mark Latham describing him as a ‘snake’ and ‘unmanly’ for allegedly throwing dirt against his own party.

Yet another Labor leak broke Saturday, this time in the Weekend Australian newspaper, with Gillard accused of sending a former bodyguard to attend sensitive security meetings on her behalf.

The leak – now the seventh in recent weeks – came after ABC TV’s earlier report that Rudd had sent his chief of staff to the same meetings held by cabinet’s National Security Committee, and will likely further raise antagonism between the Gillard and Rudd camps.

Meanwhile, August 1 will see the launch of new attack ads by the Coalition in Queensland, seeking to link the unpopularity of the Queensland state Labor government led by Premier Anna Bligh with the Gillard campaign.

‘Don’t let Gillard do to Australia what Bligh has done to Queensland,’ the ad says, warning of ‘more waste, more debt, more taxes.’

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In a ‘reds under the beds’ theme more attuned to the 1960s, the ad shows pictures of Bligh and Gillard’s faces over a black map of Australia with a red background, similar to the classic image of revolutionary Che Guevara.

Don’t go back to the future is the ad’s main message, and it’s one the Gillard team will be pondering closely in the next few days as they prepare for Rudd’s release from hospital and return to the campaign trail.

Can Gillard get her mojo back in week three? Time, at least is on her side, and as observers point out, the only poll that matters is the one on election day.