It was coined the battle of the trips by Dennis Shanahan, perhaps the only journalist accompanying Kevin Rudd to keep a sense of perspective. London, Paris, New York for the Prime Minister. The Gold Coast, Adelaide, Launceston for Brendan Nelson. While Rudd visited world leaders and wowed the foreign policy establishments of other countries, Nelson packed groceries, spoke about his guitars and filled cars with petrol.

Rudd won hands down, according to the polls.

Yes, but it depends a bit on what Nelson is trying to do. He’s currently in Tasmania, where there are no Coalition seats at all. But this is the first time he has really spent a lot of time in Labor territory. So far, he has visited Bunbury in WA (Forrest – held by Liberal Nola Marino), the Gold Coast (Margaret May and Steve Ciobo in McPherson and Moncrieff), outer Brisbane (Dickson – Peter Dutton) and Christopher Pyne’s electorate of Sturt in Adelaide.

For a party that wants to find out why people didn’t vote for it in droves last November, asking the people who did isn’t necessarily the smartest way to go about it. Then again, perhaps he wanted a friendly reception. It may not be “G’day” that Labor voters sing out to Nelson if they see him around their supermarket.

More likely, the Liberals have realised their polling is so terrible they have to go back and consolidate their base vote. That was the Coalition’s successful tactic in 2001, when Labor had surged ahead in the polls: bring back the Liberal base, vote by vote, bribe by bribe, starting with pensioners. In its death throes the previous Government tried it again during the election campaign last year, throwing another whopping bribe at the grey vote.

Of course, that’s easy when you’re in government. There’s no money to offer at the moment. Especially now that the mantle of profligacy has settled on the Coalition’s shoulders. The alternative is to offer attractive policies that will appeal to your base. Sadly, the Coalition is at the start of its policy development process, not the end. All it can offer is individual employment contracts, and there are a large number of now ex-Coalition MPs who can tell them how popular they will be.

Nelson has also taken some moves from the Rudd playbook. He’s been doing plenty of FM radio, lightweight interviews about his guitars and his earring. The transcripts don’t make for edifying reading, but they’re not designed for political types – it’s to humanise Nelson and introduce him to voters in the same way Rudd used FM and lightweight TV to connect when he became leader. It’s unlikely John Howard ever did an FM radio interview in his entire career.

But as the polls show, it is too late. Even on FM, Nelson is asked constantly about his disastrous polling numbers. Even if he does a thousand fluffy radio interviews, he’ll still be known as the single-digit man. He’s already been branded.

At each stage of the tour, Nelson has been accompanied by Liberal MPs or senators, introducing him to local worthies, nodding in the background during soundbites, providing support. The footage is starting to look like Weekend at Brendan’s, with Liberal politicians propping up their leader and trying to convince people he’s still alive politically. In a cruel sort of way, Nelson would be more interesting dead.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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