“The Table of Knowledge” Condong Bowls Club in the hinterland of the Gold Coast, a long jutting piece of Formica coming out of the wall, of this vast, beery space — punters at the long bar, kids and journos round the pool table, the door-windows looking out onto the green. It’s 6pm on a Monday night, and Warwick, Bazza, Cheryl and the rest are laying down the law. “We’ve sacked and hired more prime ministers here than there’ve been since federation,” Warwick says, laughing. Forty-something, with a roundish face and a gentle manner, he seems the de facto convenor of the group that drinks here.

One time, someone got sick of their know-it-all-ness, their wonkishness, their earsplitting arguments on refugees and the rest, printed out a picture of the human brain and stuck it to the stucco. And there it’s stayed. They’re here a few nights a week, not everyone — “can’t believe I’’ drinking on a Monday,” Warwick says — but it’s a full house tonight because PM Kevin Rudd’s in town. The Ruddster has powered into town, a few clicks across from Murwillumbah, as part of a barnstorming tour of the north NSW coast, a triumphal procession through the safe seat of Richmond and the should-be-safe one of Page, below it.

We beat him there on the press bus, pulling in through the miles of sugarcane around half-past four in the afternoon, coming up from the airport at Coolangatta, through the sprawl of the Gold Coast, the strip malls and dinky pomo service centres, the identikit fast-food joints with their huge stacked signs outside, HungryJacksMaccasKFCCoffeesomething, the vast Bunnings warehouses, and the dinky pseudo cottagey shops selling manipedis, depilation, dog grooming and the rest.

Then the sprawl peeled away, and we plunged into the mid-country, criss-crossed by highways, but of an earlier era, the fibro shacks leaning against themselves in the late winter half-heat, rusting water towers half-graffitied. Come out into Condong — by late afternoon on the bus all the name gags have been done — and we pull into the space between the bowls club and what powers the town, a vast sugar mill, lime green metal panels bolted together around three smokestacks, two rusting, one white as an ocean liner’s, a plume of smoke ebbing away.

The network camera guys pile off first so the media can film itself arriving, and as the door opens you catch the whiff of burnt sugar that surrounds the place; not overpowering, not unpleasant, like sweet tea on your tongue, tanniny, spicy. Invisible, but everywhere, it hangs across the place, which is a clearing amid the cane, the plant reaching via a long pipe-projection right across one side of the bowls club and the green to a vast, tarp-covered pile of green-cut cane awaiting burning, 10 metres high, a hundred long, an Uluru of new fuel.

Some 30 journos were tapping into iPhones and tablets as they came down the charter bus stairs, telling their editors that we’d actually made it, second engagement of a long, travel-heavy day, up from Sydney in the morning to Byron/Ballina airport, bus to Lismore, back from Lismore to Ballina, then a 14-minute flight to Coolangatta and another bus back south to here. By the time we arrived, there were about a 150 folks gathered to see his Kevness, standing on the raised wall of the club’s green, watching us arrive.

It had a vaguely biblical quality to it all, a product of the can perhaps, and of the tribalism. The club regulars, the party members called to come in, these were the true believers, kids decked in Kevin 07 T-shirts, adults in red “Labor” bands. Not many work at the sugar mill now — “’bout a hundred,” Warwick, the only mill worker I could find, and a subbie at that, says — and they come from Hungry Jacks (“just told the boss, wife of the local Nat, she can’t tell me how to vote”), from the council, or they’re simply retired, took a package at 55 and came here from building, from plumbing, from teaching.

They favour comfy slacks, print dresses with a lean towards the leopardskin, pictorial shirts, post-Hawaiian affairs portraying desert sunsets, and Vegas chic, giving the place the air of an Elmore Leonard fanfic convention. They would, if they were in the American South, be solidly Republican and leaning towards the Tea Party for reasons you don’t want to think about. But here where Labor was born in Australia, Labor has held them. There’s a curious reversal in them watching us as we decant, the journos in cheap suits, the techs all dressed like hipsters.

“Unusually, he is larger in the flesh than on TV, more substantial, more floaty, a milky cloud of knowing, a little bit Chesterbelloc, a touch of Mao.”

We are odd against the landscape, over- and under-dressed, the advance guard of a spectacle, the “colour event” of the day, wherein the PM will turn up, meet and greet, lark around, announce some initiatives and depart. Ten minutes after we arrive, the motorcade of white cars comes through, flags fluttering on the front bonnet, and the PM bounds out, begins pressing the flesh. The protection service has got out a coupla seconds before, guys in Ray-Bans and suits and earpieces like they they’d got the gear from the movie, moving into the crowd, invisible but very present.

There’s no iron cordon like with a US president — people move past and beside the PM and wife Therese Rein, but they are there, unmistakably there. The guards have glanced sharply at me about four times today, until I started wearing the security pass a little more visibly. But really, it’s all very loose, funky. This is a feelgood event, a place to reaffirm heartland support while announcing a pretty smallfry policy — matching funds for aged care and community involvement — and Rudd is more less lifted towards the bowling green by acclaim.

This is the second event of an easy day — the 40 or so journos and techs in the press party are still regaling each other with tales of last week’s extravaganza from Darling to Kununurra to Perth in a day, a sign that the Rudd campaign had taken on something of its master’s pointless energy, a reminder of the bad old days. Maybe someone listened, because this morning, after the short hop from Sydney, the main event of the day — a launch and press conference on funding for Medicare Local and early diagnosis stroke intervention — was done by lunch.

We’d come through the trad towns of the north-east, watching as Lismore appeared, the once straitlaced place that got a contact high from Nimbin 30 years ago and has never come down since. The brick veneers yielded to old bungalows, wilting Edwardian things still painted in rainbow colours here and there, windchimes and ads for aromatherapy hanging from the eaves. The place would love to have stayed pure, but it’s a uni town now, a suburb of Byron, an expression of the new social coalition Labor needs to survive. We pull in behind the hospital, to a repurposed grand old weatherboard place serving as a clinic of sorts.

By now, a pall has settled over the Rudd express. Doesn’t matter how much this is a job of work, they take up the mood of the moment, and Kevin Rudd has been sliding in the polls since the election started. The first two weeks of the election have brought on a general bewilderment. Having been promised that he would take the fight to the Right, and with the glitteringly dark achievement of the PNG solution as a testament to a new no-nonsense attitude, Labor’s campaign has had very little by way of agenda-setting or attack at all.

There’s been no big proposition in week one that might put the opposition in context, force them to be reactive, no big give-away that people might want to vote for, and no Big Fear to try and persuade waverers who can’t stand Labor that really, they might be better sticking with the ALP after all. The primary is heading south to 34%, the two-party preferred to 46%, and the agenda and appetite seems to be with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Rudd and his advisers may be playing the strategy of letting Abbott get out in front and then blasting him so hard that he has no time to recover.

If that’s the game then their nerve is ice-cold, but I suspect the harsher truth is that, in all the palaver over leadership change and then election, no one has really thought about what the Big Argument in favour was going to be.Thus we rock up to St Vincent’s Lismore, where there’s a waiting party of clinicians, nurses, patients … and living legend Mungo MacCallum, 19th-century Engels short hair and long beard now grey and matted, but the man himself sprightly as ever.

“Hello Mungo, you are the living embodiment of the gonzo spirit in Australia. I honour you,” I said, in my head later. At the time my greeting was “Hello Mungo, have you had a stroke too?”, which, since I later found out a friend of his recently had and would have benefited from the program Rudd was here to launch … was a little gauche. He mumbled something and we all went in, the tech crews achieving faced with the difficult task of getting cameras and tripods past the wheelchair-bound politely.

“It’s a pleasure to be her to honour Janelle Saffin,” Rudd began, after being cornered in a side room for a while by some feisty nurses, who wanted to argue with the PM and Health Minister Tanya Plibersek, also in attendance, about a stuff-up in the PBS funding that would give small pharmacies a huge hit. The event was as much to honour Saffin, known as just about the most hardworking community Labor MP — and wearing proudly a “No CSG” badge — as it was to launch the stroke awareness program, but Rudd managed to weave it all together in a 20-minute speech. “Twenty-three Australians die per day from stroke, 8000  a year …” and he sounded like he might continue Mayan calendar-style clicking off ever-larger numbers.

But he has an argument to connect it all up. Stroke is often misdiagnosed, especially at small hospitals. Medicare Local, the specific program that the opposition would cut, would mitigate that, and when plugged into the NBN, would allow remote expert clinicians to guide regional doctors to better, faster correct treatment.

Unusually, he is larger in the flesh than on TV, more substantial, more floaty, a milky cloud of knowing, a little bit Chesterbelloc, a touch of Mao. Faced with an opposition promising both a Scandi-generous parental leave program, which Rudd claims is unfunded — “did anyone see Joe Hockey’s press conference this morning? Well we’ve all had bad press conferences, but this was a disaster, he couldn’t say how much of the PPL would be funded by the business levy” — he has a way of tying that together.

Where’s the money coming from for these $75,000 parental leave payments? Well from somewhere like this, he intimates. It’s a subtly rendered and elegant statement of two competing visions of social development — and therein of course is the problem, because there’s no way to compress this into a package, into soundbite, if he’s not going to do it first. It simply passes away only half-noticed, the observation that it’s Labor with the well-shaped and joined up programs, while the Coalition is allegedly the one throwing it around without much context.

It seems a waste. Has there been no one looking at his speech, finding a way to punch on? It is eerily serene in the face of ever more disastrous news. Has he got something up his sleeve, or is he now resigned to defeat, and concerned only with not losing his shirt? His walk-arounds give nothing away on that score. Very few politicians these days are of the old school, where they really enjoy meeting people — or that is to say, are happy to forego the time that could be spent on policy and politicking. For earlier eras meeting people was politicking, in tight neighbourhood urban electorates, arguing round this person, that family, that pastor, that local bigwig.

In the US, where the campaign trail consists of large rallies and endless gatherings, which happen to be televised as well, something of that spirit survives — Barack Obama argued his way to the White House in a thousand Iowa living rooms and caucuses, and the bigger rallies that built from there. Here, now, in Australia, these events are the staged version of a memory of that. The bus rolls up, the press rolls out, the techs hoist their cameras, check the white balance against car bonnets or girls’ white-T-shirts, get the car coming in, the PM getting out, dash around for a cutaway, and so on and so on. (In Condong he arrived with Mungo in tow, presumably as an endorsement on the importance of ageing in a lively fashion, the sage of Brunswick Heads clambering from C-1 half-willingly like a kidnapped barbarian king brought to Rome, and made a viceroy.)

The staged events then start, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Yesterday Rudd put his all into lawn bowls, a sport that even the somnolent among us find aggravating, and whose outsize role in Australian life has always been a source of bewilderment to me. Rudd took off his shoes and clambered catlike down onto the green in his stockinged feet, as did the rest of us, and he bowled a few boules with the focused enjoyment of a man whose idea of fun is a 3am white paper, and then a redraft, by phone. Didn’t matter to the crowd who are solid Labor — of the old type, but not the old old type, the Whitlam-era type when the power of the shared project mean that individual differences of style were not themselves differences of politics.

“We’d all like Labor to be more … Labor,” said Warwick at the table of knowledge, the others nodding in agreement. “More like when it was Hawke and Keating, and more for the worker.” They’d never vote anything else, but Rudd hasn’t communicated to them that his program, his view of the nation, is in some ways more Laborist than the market-based cultural re-engineering of Keating, the disastrous mix of free-market economics and nationalism poured down a pipe like hot sugar that gave John Howard a decade’s hegemony. I try the Gonski test, but they all know Gonski well. “Ýeah, we all know about Gonski,” Bazza says, suddenly serious after a few minutes trying to bait me on refugees and Islam.

“My wife’s a special needs teacher, I’ve got kids who can’t hear,” Warwick says. He’s got grandchildren with disabilities. “Currently these kids get no help in the classroom, Gonski’s all about that.” But [pullquote position=”right”]it’s another example of people knowing the parts, not the whole, of Labor failing to advance a whole vision — one that would convince round waverers[/pullquote]. Perhaps they can still do it, but it’s going to take some blistering speeches, and a willingness to take a risk on going in hard — and the possibility that that too might go horribly wrong.

By now, the Ruddvan has long gone, and we’re hanging around so people can file for evening deadlines, half-dozen tapping away at sleek tablets on a set-aside table, next to the free buffet, piles of fries, party pies and wontons. Eventually, in the darkness, the mill still smoking away under klieg light, we’re loaded back up for the trip through to Brisbane, 90 minutes of the placeless flashes of Gold Coast culture, the roadside billboards for miracle churches, Warner Brothers Movie World, a crematorium that looks like a restaurant trying to look like an antebellum slave plantation, the no-zones, and conceptual burbs, where loyalty extends no further than X-Factor contestants, and each vote must be won, one by one, all flashing past in the night.