According to last week’s Newspoll the major parties are now running level on their primary votes and Labor will need Green preferences to retain government.

It’s a big swing, perhaps too big to be entirely credible; even with a gut issue like the asylum seekers going full blast, it’s hard to believe that well over a million voters deserted Labor for the coalition in a fortnight while still retaining an undiminished preference for Kevin Rudd over Malcolm Turnbull.

But let’s assume it’s true, and that the next election is not the sure thing it has appeared for nearly two years. Exactly what has pissed these punters off and will others follow? Perhaps more importantly, what does Labor (read Rudd) have to do to get them back?

The first thing to note is that if the switch is really a result of the boat people kerfuffle, Rudd won’t be able to bluster and twitter his way out of it. The fact that the defectors went straight to the coalition rather than to the Greens or to independents suggests that they are coming from the right of the spectrum: that they want a policy that is less humane and more hard-line.

The coalition does not actually have a policy of any kind, but its more vociferous members have certainly been talking tough, and the memory of the heartless Howard years is not all that distant. Clearly the perception is that Malcolm Turnbull, whatever his personal views, could be persuaded to be more brutal than Kevin Rudd.

In fact Rudd, even if he were inclined towards brutality (which he isn’t, except perhaps for people smugglers) would not be allowed to go down that path. Even if caucus could be convinced that it was the only option, the party rank and file wouldn’t wear it and crucially the trades unions have come out strongly on the side of compassion.

It was Paul Howes of the AWU who came out of the blue with a rational and moving plea for a common sense and decency, and he was quickly followed by the ACTU as a body; interestingly one of the strongest advocates for the boat people was the CMFEU, whose members are usually seen as unbending rednecks. These, it might have been thought, would have been precisely the kind of voters who might have deserted Labor over the issue. Instead they appear to have moved the other way, and clearly this increases the pressure on Rudd to do the same.

By the end of last week something close to a consensus was emerging from the broad left: Rudd’s mantra of “hard-line on people smugglers but humane to asylum seekers” was at worst self-contradictory and at best meaningless, and no amount of radio barnstorming by Rudd was going to convince the punters otherwise. It was time to cut the political losses and go back to basics and the best way to do that would be to allow the Oceanic Viking to deliver its load of recalcitrant Tamils to Christmas Island and hope that future arrivals would be more straightforward.

The plan had the merit of simplicity, but it also contained serious risks. The most obvious was that such a move could easily be portrayed as weakness, and might encourage further voter defections from the right. But perhaps more importantly it would involve asking Rudd himself to eat a very large shit sandwich, which would be not only totally against the man’s nature, but perhaps highly counter-productive politically.

Undoubtedly the most striking aspect of the Newspoll was that while it showed a dramatic drop in support for the party, almost none of the odium seems to have attached itself to the leader. Rudd’s personal approval rating was marginally down but his lead in the preferred prime minister question was as commanding as ever. Unquestionably he remains by far the party’s greatest electoral asset, and the party cannot afford to be seen to be slighting him.

This, of course, is the great dilemma facing all his internal critics, but particularly those from the left. Some of his stances regularly outrage them: the attack on photographer Bill Henson, the sellout of the Emissions Trading Scheme to the polluters, the appointment of Peter Costello … the list goes on, and the refusal to admit the Tamils has now been added to it.

Many can’t wait for the glorious day when he will make way for their own saviour, Julia Gillard. But they know – or at least the serious ones do – that they can’t afford to push him. The halo might be slightly awry, but out there in Voterland he’s still Saint Kevin. He is after all, the prophet who led them through the wilderness of the Global Financial Crisis and at least gave them a glimpse of the lucky country on the other side.

Happily for the government the magnitude of this achievement should be most apparent in the forthcoming Christmas holidays, with booming retail sales, a resumption of domestic tourism and a general feeling of economic bonhomie. Compared with the horrific forecasts of a year ago, it will seem like some kind of miracle. The season to be jolly indeed, and definitely not a time for carping and niggling about whether, with hindsight, the stimulus package should have been handled a little differently.

And in any case, the big news is going to be Copenhagen and climate change, and Rudd has already started ramping up the rhetoric on that. Of course the Rudd-haters in the commentariat are already saying that he’s only doing it to divert attention from the asylum seekers and Newspoll, but they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Rudd (well, the ALP, actually) might have lost some of its lead, but he doesn’t have to panic about a blip in the polls — at least not yet.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey