The party that stuffs up the least between now and the election will win it.

Not since 1990 has there a pending clash of two less competent leaders.  Back then Bob Hawke, summoning the last of his fading political powers, took on Andrew Peacock, the sun-tanned soufflé leading a hopelessly divided Liberal Party so disorganised it didn’t actually work out a health policy in time for the election. The leaders’ debate was like watching a couple of toothless sharks trying to maul each other.

Like Hawke, Kevin Rudd used to have electoral appeal and an iron grip on how to communicate with voters.  That has now vanished.  Hawke’s appeal faded over three terms.  Rudd’s has disappeared so quickly you have to wonder if he’s been spirited off, Harold Holt-style, in a Chinese sub and replaced with a bad impersonator with all the charmless mannerisms and none of the 2007-vintage skills.

The Abbott-Peacock comparison doesn’t, alas, hold up beyond the glowing physical vanity — and even there, Peacock rarely got more exercise than pulling his Gucci luggage around the Macquarie Hostel here in Canberra.  Abbott has put in a bravura performance whenever negativity has been required.  The moment he has tried anything positive, he has transformed into the most maladroit politician since Alexander Downer’s comic turn in “I Say, Wouldn’t It Be A Jolly Jape To Run A Party!”.  That Abbott comes apart so easily under relatively mild pressure from journalists should be a cause of deep concern among his colleagues.

So we end up with the bloke who can’t communicate what little he stands for versus the bloke who can’t handle pressure.  Peter Costello might be wondering why on earth he turned his back on politics right now.

This is far worse for Labor than it is for the coalition.  History says the coalition should face at least two terms in opposition.  They have nothing to lose.  But Labor faces the horrible truth: given how well the economy is performing, and how utterly inept the opposition has proven to be on policy, they should be murdering the Liberals.  Instead, by some measures, they’d lose an election held now.  And they’ve now got two weeks of Parliament, and Senate estimates, giving the opposition plenty of time and coverage to get their messages out there — a rare opportunity between now and the likely election date.

For all the media and opposition stirring about Julia Gillard, one of Labor’s core problems, especially in prosecuting its case for the RSPT, is that it lacks a Keating figure who combines a gift for condensing messages into cut-through phrases, economic gravitas and a capacity to intimidate industry and his political opponents.  Gillard can condense issues but she’s not central to the economic debate in the way Keating and Peter Costello were.  Lindsay Tanner is adept at arguing a case but is confined to the finance portfolio.  Wayne Swan now owns the Treasurership in a way he didn’t two years ago, but it’s unlikely too many business executives live in fear of receiving an angry phone call from him.  Swan’s been ramping up the aggression towards the mining companies in recent days and he needs to keep doing it even while negotiating with the more sensible mining execs about the introduction of the RSPT.

Swan’s prosecution of the case for the RSPT is crucial not merely to Labor’s electoral fate but to the future of good public policy in Australia.  If a bunch of whingeing foreign mining companies can derail a sensible tax reform through an hysterical propaganda campaign and buying the support of a major political party, we may as well sack elected politicians and put business executives and share market screen jockeys in charge of the country.