“One-out stuff” is a rugby league cliche that, as a Queenslander, Kevin Rudd might be familiar with.  It’s when a team, bereft of ideas, repeatedly chucks the ball to a forward who lumbers towards the opposition with no support in the hope of magically busting through. Said forward tends to get belted for his trouble.

One-out stuff is Labor’s game plan at the moment, and it’s Rudd lumbering towards his opponents, out of ideas, getting belted.

For a government that finds itself suddenly mired in opinion polls, this one actually has a strong story to tell.  Unemployment is low, thanks to the government’s stimulus measures.  Its fiscal position will be revealed to be substantially better than previously forecast next week.  It secured a sound, if not exactly brilliant, health reform package.

The media campaign against elements of the stimulus package have been demonstrated to be either (in the case of schools projects) entirely confected or (in the case of insulation) grotesquely overstated. And yesterday the McKinsey/KPMG report on the NBN set out a strong case for government investment in what will become the Rudd government’s landmark reform — and along the way entirely discrediting a lot of the hysterical claims advanced by Telstra shills.  And then there’s the RSPT, the sort of good quality, Labor-oriented policy that we saw from the Hawke government.

Roy Morgan polling that emerged last night suggested strong support for the tax reform package — up to two-thirds of voters approving of it, and 78% for the compulsory super increase — including 65% of Liberal voters.  But support drops significantly for the mining tax — 47% approval to 45% disapproval — never let it be said Australian voters don’t believe in magic puddings.

Even so, that’s still a very strong base for a government campaign to sell its reform package.

But Rudd has looked all at sea, and the government, accordingly, does too.  A stronger case has been mounted in the media and by the mining sector unions for the tax than by the Prime Minister.  Merely chanting something about sharing the wealth repeatedly isn’t going to convince doubters.  The opposition must be unable to believe its luck that Rudd’s once-strong capacity to communicate with voters (and yes, he did use to have it) has vanished.  While the media might mischievously play up the Gillard-stalking-Rudd meme for its own purposes, Gillard wasn’t the only one who contrasted strongly with Rudd this week.  Lindsay Tanner, who otherwise has been buried in Budget preparations, emerged yesterday to sell the NBN implementation study and went straight onto the offensive, explaining why Tony Abbott’s dream of using the cancellation of the NBN to fund his spending couldn’t work, and drawing heavily on the Howard government’s treatment of Telstra in doing so.

The government has to dramatically improve its salesmanship of the tax package or start watching those strong levels of support reverse.  For a start, Gillard (who was only over in the west receiving a warm welcome from the mining companies several weeks ago) and Tanner should be a lot more visible.

“Salesmanship” sounds trite but tax reform is about discipline and salesmanship.  John Howard’s sales campaign for the GST — costing tens of millions of dollars — was way over the top but he and Costello held their nerve in the face of a constant barrage of gloom’n’doom forecasts from industry about the impact of the tax, all given headline prominence by the media.  Rudd has only been exposed to a fraction of that from the liars in the mining industry, but he looks rattled, and as we all know from the CPRS debacle, his record on discipline is poor.  You might want to pass the ball, PM.  There are some star players in your team.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey