The 2010 election is shaping as the least inspirational political clash in decades. In the red corner, a nerd who looks like he couldn’t land a blow to save himself. In the blue corner, a challenger who looks like he could handle himself OK, but for a disconcerting habit of throwing his best punches at himself.

It’s like we paid to see the heavyweight championship of the world, but discovered on arrival it’s a couple of 12-year-olds swinging haymakers at each other.

While yesterday’s Essential Report poll had only a small slip in the 2PP vote, that disguised a bigger fall for Labor, although the Greens continue to be the beneficiaries, not the opposition, who have been stuck at about 40% primary vote for some time.

Which is to say, things aren’t as bad as the doom merchants are making out — but it may not be long before they are.

The Greens spike might vanish come the election, or it might through political stupidity become permanent. Then you end up with Tasmania, where Labor simply let a large chunk of its base walk away out of a weird loyalty to logging and hydroelectric companies.

In its more qualitative questions, Essential tried to get a handle on whether the Greens were drawing people to them, or it was the major parties pushing people away. Based on the results, voters rate the Greens pretty poorly. Even on an impressionistic issues such as honesty and ethics, where you’d expect the Greens to have some appeal to voters, they rated worse than the major parties. They weren’t even considered better at standing up to multinational companies — that was one of the few areas where Labor still has some brand strength.  Only on environmental issues did the Greens out-rate the big parties.

So a substantial chunk of voters are happy to turn to the Greens, but don’t think much of them. That might account for why the Greens have the highest rate of voters who say they might change their minds before the election, and lowest rate of “very firm” votes.

Labor didn’t fare as badly in the qualitative polling, but trailed the coalition in most of the criteria — even in areas such as international relations, where the coalition is demonstrably incompetent. That suggests it’s not so much individual issues that people are making a decision on — it’s the whole Labor brand that is badly tarnished at the moment.

Why? There are lots of explanations, but none are compelling. The government has been competent, and certainly less accident-prone than its predecessor’s first term — an outcome reflected in the comparative polling performance of the two governments. Conservatives maintain that Australians “have woken up to Rudd”, which explains nothing, and raises the question of why they were fooled on such an epic scale for so long, and why they appear to be moving leftward as a result.

Climate change action proponents believe the abandonment of the CPRS was critical — which overlooks that the government tried twice to pass the scheme, and it was a dog anyway.  The press gallery is almost unanimous in insisting it’s because of a communications failure by Kevin Rudd (I’ve said this too) — but in the other breath accuses the government of being obsessed with spin.

The Howard government found itself in a similar position in 2007 — presiding over a strong economy, having performed competently (chiefly because of the mining boom), yet inexplicably — at least to the commentariat — unable to attract the support of voters. That partly reflected the inability of many commentators to realise that Workchoices was simply hated by voters and had created a deep anger towards Howard. If anything, this government is unpopular for the reforms it has failed to undertake, not the ones it has embraced.  Moreover, it’s only three years old, not 11 and looking for 14.

Even so, there’s something familiar in the electorate’s sullen resentment towards a government that hasn’t got too shabby a record to look back on.

Apart from historical interest, the question of most concern to Labor strategists — if such creatures exist any more — is whether, as happened to John Howard, the electorate has simply stopped listening to Kevin Rudd. It’s the question on which his prime ministership hangs. If they’ve stopped listening, he’s gone, and the only question is whether he takes his party with him or his colleagues switch to someone to whom voters will listen.

It’s not a question easily answered. We only definitively knew that the electorate had stopped listening to John Howard when he lost office and his own seat. But the warning signs were coming through in focus group research well before that, that people literally switched off Howard when they encountered him in the media. Pollsters says that level of anger hasn’t yet been reached with Rudd, that the feeling is more disillusionment and frustration. Voters, then, may still be up for grabs if Rudd can signal to them that he’s listening to them and is prepared to address their disappointment in him.

A revamp of Rudd’s much-criticised office is said to be under consideration,with more experienced advisers brought in to provide some greater strategic direction. There’s also a view that John Faulkner needs to be brought back to a more central role in the government’s internal processes. It may not be entirely coincidental that some of the government’s problems began when Faulkner was moved from cabinet secretary to Defence slightly over a year ago, where he has his hands full.

Rudd and his team have time to turn it around, but they’ll have to display a hitherto-unnoticed capacity to learn from their mistakes.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey