Australia's election: 100 days to go

Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, pictured on 5 February 2013 Three months out, is Australia's election outcome set in stone?

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In a parliament often pilloried for its unruliness and childishness, last month saw a rare moment of cross-party accord.

It came with the teary announcement from Martin Ferguson, a Labor minister who resigned from the government because of his support for the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, that he was stepping down as the MP for the seat of Batman.

Mr Fergusson, a gruff former union chief, broke down as he paid tribute to the parents who had helped launch his career.

More surprisingly, there was emotion, too, from the leader of opposition, Tony Abbott, as he bade farewell to a politician regarded as one of Labor's more competent performers.

"Well may we shed a tear," said Mr Abbott, as he himself struggled to contain his feelings, "for things which were, which should be, but which are not."

As Abbott retook his seat, Julia Gillard turned to her front bench and rolled her eyes. The subtext of his remarks, after all, was that Mr Ferguson would never have resigned had Kevin Rudd remained as leader.

Start Quote

Australia, it seems, is not having an election... but a handover”

End Quote Barrie Cassidy ABC political presenter

But that afternoon, and on the evening news bulletins that came later, it was Mr Abbott who came across as the more prime ministerial of the two.

After Julia Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd in June, 2010, her first words on the floor of parliament came when Tony Abbott approached to offer a congratulatory hand.

"Game on," she uttered sotto voce, clearly thinking she had his measure.

Three years on, virtually everyone in Canberra, including senior Labor figures, looks upon her as the loser.

'Like the Titanic'

As the 14 September election draws closer - there are now 100 days to go - her rival is affecting the air of a prime minister-designate. Barring some catastrophic revelation or dramatic unforeseen event, he should become the country's 28th leader.

"Australia, it seems, is not having an election on 14 September," says the ABC political presenter Barrie Cassidy, "but a handover. Never before has there been this level of expectation that a government is about to be thrown out."

Out of all the thousands of words written this year about the forthcoming election, few have so pin-pointedly hit the mark.

The polls suggest not only a defeat for Labor but also a rout. I have spoken to senior figures within the party who think it will be lucky to hold onto 30 seats, which in a parliament of 150 MPs would be calamitous. In Queensland, they could face a near wipe out.

File photo: Kevin Rudd Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd remains popular with voters, but has ruled out a return

Some Labor insiders fear they will retain just one seat - that, emblematically, of Kevin Rudd in Brisbane. They also expect to lose a swathe of seats in the western suburbs of Sydney, another key battleground.

High-ranking figures, like the Treasurer Wayne Swan and the defence minister Stephen Smith, face a struggle to retain their seats.

Last-ditch hopes that the federal budget handed down in May could spur some sort of a comeback have now evaporated.

Kevin Rudd, a potential saviour who did not have enough support to mount a successful challenge for the Labor leadership in February, has ruled out a return in any circumstances.

Small wonder that a gallows humour has taken hold within Labor ranks.

"It's like the Titanic - we're in the final scenes," one Labor backbencher, who supports Kevin Rudd, told ABC News. "Third class has realised the doors are locked and they're not getting out. And first class are running around looking for a dress to put on."

Coup legacy

Such is the air of defeatism that some senior Labor strategists believe they should fight a noble campaign with a view to future elections rather than a nasty campaign, centred on personal attacks against Tony Abbott, that might mitigate their losses this time round.

Better to protect what is left of the Labor brand, the thinking goes, than to resort to negative tactics that have proven so off-putting to voters.

Outsiders might be surprised that a country that has weathered the global financial crisis without plunging into recession is about to punish the government so severely.

However, while Australia has enjoyed a period of relative economic stability, Canberra has gone through a phase of extreme political volatility.

Many of the government's problems flow from the coup that ousted Kevin Rudd in 2010.

File photo: Tony Abbott Opposition leader Tony Abbott remains a polarising figure

The former prime minister, and his allies, have been a wilfully destabilising presence. Julia Gillard has struggled to stamp her authority on the government, and also to find her prime ministerial voice.

Though her minority government has pushed through popular reforms, like the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonksi education programme, too often Labor has given the impression of self-absorption.

Its focus, many voters feel, has been on internal politicking rather than national governance.

Nor can Julia Gillard catch a break right now.

Last week, when she visited a school in Canberra to announce a major new school funding deal, television reports devoted more time to how she had been targeted by a flying salami sandwich - a copy-cat prank modelled on a vegemite sandwich aerial assault a few weeks before.

The turn-around has been stunning. Less than six years ago, when Kevin Rudd's victory ended 11 years of conservative rule, Labor's domination was complete.

Back then, the party ruled every state and territory, and the most senior Liberal office holder was the mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman.

Now New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, where Mr Newman is now the premier, are all held by the conservative coalition.

Transitional period

So often underestimated, Mr Abbott can claim much of the credit. In the months after the failed Copenhagen global warning summit, when the politics of climate change were completely upended and the Rudd project seemed to stall, he seized the initiative and contributed to his opponent's downfall.

His attacks on Julia Gillard for adopting a carbon tax, despite promising during the 2010 campaign not to do so, have damaged her credibility.

More recently, with speeches on indigenous affairs and his backing for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, he has sought to recast his public image from the attack dog of old to a leader-in-waiting.

Once seen as erratic and overly aggressive, he has emerged in recent months as a more substantial and multi-dimensional figure.

He remains a deeply polarising figure, and polls continue show he is far from being a popular figure.

But he does not appear to elicit the same fear and loathing from sections of the electorate that stopped him from winning in 2010. He seems to be passing the plausibility test.

Barrie Cassidy has likened this pre-election phase to a US presidential transition, when the winner is known, but unable to take power until the actual inauguration.

After all, few here doubt that in roughly 100 days time, Tony Abbott will be taking the oath of office.

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