Kevin10 appeared as a far more subdued campaign version of Kevin07, while Gillard and Abbott prepare their tasty morsels for debate and the big question of the day seems to be: how can we talk about a sustainable population without bringing up immigration?

Kevin Rudd sauntered back into the headlines yesterday, with a visit to a local Brisbane primary school — his first appearance on the campaign trail. The media were out in force to cover the ex-PM, who went out of his way to stay on message with local issues: “Throughout this election campaign, I’ll be speaking about only local issues here in my community here in Griffith, such as this school building program and the need to complete that program in each and every one of the 42 primary schools in my electorate,” said Rudd.

“Arriving in a chauffeur-driven car with his own security officer, Mr Rudd’s visit attracted a large media contingent, overshadowing Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott on the campaign trail,” reports Samantha Maiden in The Oz.

It’s a odd situation for Rudd says Michelle Grattan in The Age: “Rudd, who’s been promised a ministry by Gillard, didn’t have to be on the frontbench to be in the forefront of this campaign. He doesn’t even have to talk to the media. He just has to be visible, which makes him a sort of political freak show. Yesterday’s performance at the Coorparoo school, where he addressed the students, was almost a send-up — of himself and/or the government.”

It’s a far cry from the days of Kevin07. “PM one day, MP the next. On the hustings in his safe seat of Griffith yesterday, Kevin Rudd was behaving like a bloke in denial,” writes Natasha Bita in The Australian.

News of Rudd and Gillard’s secret leadership deal — which fell through on spill night– is also emerging from Dennis Shanahan at The Oz. According to Shanahan, there’s talk that Gillard promised a frontbench seat immediately to Rudd and then changed her mind. Rudd also reneged on a deal to step aside immediately on June 23 and now he’s been punished by not getting a ministry.

Rudd’s booting will continue to haunt Gillard’s campaign, says Barrie Cassidy on The Drum:

“The most awkward moment of the campaign will happen when he joins the other former prime ministers at the launch, as he must. Where does he sit? What will be said about him? Will Gillard go to them for an embrace as leaders usually do? How will the body language look? What will Rudd say, if anything on arrival and departure?”

But “Rudd isn’t the only ex-leader with zipped lips, steely determination and an uncertain future,” writes Michelle Grattan in The Age. Malcolm Turnbull is doing the same thing, wanting a frontbench seat but stuck in an awkward relationship with the party leader.

Meanwhile, population continues to be the Big Issue of the campaign. But according to Gillard, the population debate isn’t about immigration. “I don’t believe that this is an immigration debate in that sense,” she said.

Cue confusion — and outright anger — from the commentariat.

Paul Kelly at The Oz is frustrated:

Labor’s Sustainable Population position sank into farce yesterday when Julia Gillard contradicted her recent messages by saying this debate was not about immigration levels… The point is obvious: Ms Gillard’s sustainable strategy is an election-driven political position without policy content or even rudimentary ideas.

Julia Gillard is moving into a danger zone, according to The Oz’s editorial:

…until she presents her policies to reduce the birthrate, increase the death rate or persuade Australians to flee their homeland, it is hard to see Labor’s little Australia as anything other than an exercise in dog-whistling, which carries grave dangers for the economy.

“So what is a sustainable population?” asks Peter Hartcher in The Sydney Morning Herald.

The PM is refusing to name the magic number. Gillard seems to want to host a debate rather than supply an answer, says Hartcher. “This is not a policy, and it’s not even a debate about possible policy. It’s just a placebo, a sugar pill for the electorate to suck during an election campaign, to keep it happy and quiet.”

The ALP might be unsure of the exact numbers, but they are dealing with it in the right way, says Malcolm Farr in The Daily Telegraph. “The Liberals are looking at the population issue from the wrong end of the tunnel because they really want you to be thinking about, and bothered by, immigration numbers. Labor’s approach is short on precise numbers, but at least it is coming to the sustainable population debate from the right end– work out what is best for the country and then make adjustments down the line.”

And as two new boats sail over the horizon today and the Coalition picks up their asylum seeker attack again, Jill Singer in The Herald Sun asks “why is Australia suddenly sinking the boot into asylum seekers?”

“Labor sees electoral advantage in getting tough on certain refugees. Forget Gillard’s promise that Australia won’t turn its back on those in genuine need. The evidence is mounting that that is precisely what is happening,” says Singer.

Over in the UK news of our preference for MasterChef over the leaders debate embarrassingly made The Guardian:

“They take their tucker seriously in Australia. So when the traditional political leaders’ debate for the forthcoming federal election campaign came up against the scheduled final of MasterChef there was only one winner. And it wasn’t the politicians.”

And five days in, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are still trying to define themselves in this campaign.

This is shaping up as an “extraordinarily cautious campaign on the part of the Government,” writes Dennis Atkins in The Courier Mail. “Public exposure of the leader is limited, election events are kept to a minimum and every potential negative is smothered and pushed aside.”

WorkChoices is not where Abbott should be, writes David Penberthy in The Daily Telegraph. “Abbott has suckered himself into fighting the opening days of the campaign on Labor’s preferred territory of industrial relations. It suggests bad advice.”

Perhaps luckily for Abbott, not many people are watching yet, says Barrie Cassidy at The Drum: “If that is Tony Abbott’s worst week, and for his sake you would hope it is, then better to get it out of the way before the whole of the country is paying attention.”

But there’s a special joy in watching the Abbott campaign, says Katharine Murphy in The Age: “Sure it’s a crazy ride, but somehow it’s all holding together despite itself. Somehow it is not imploding. Somehow it’s old school, and — dare we say it — kind of fun.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey