|Problems with brand Labor|
There were signs at the end of last year that the major parties were moving into a different phase of their struggle for power.
Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott seemed to be rationing their media exposure and sharing with their colleagues more, presumably to lower the irritation that both cause electors, to regather their strength, and to modify their course in 2012.
Our last online qualitative poll of 1184 voters suggests that the pause changed nothing in terms of party support, but some of the landscape has settled. There was a small retracement up in the Liberal Party first-preference vote to much the same position they held in June last year, and a similar movement down in the ALP vote, mirroring Newspoll.
There has been little change in terms of personal standing, although Abbott seems to have marginally improved his popularity while Gillard hasn't.
That may partly be because, as well as a personality problem, Gillard has a problem with brand Labor. Rudd's undeclared war makes this worse. When she is less visible the party becomes more visible, and voters switch from personal negatives to organisational ones.
The speeches the two leaders gave last week were supposed to change the dynamics. Abbott was to prove that he had something to say and was more than a critic, while Gillard was to enunciate a compelling narrative that would trade on one of Labor's strengths -- education -- and use it to resurrect Labor's claim to be the party of higher productivity and hence a better economy.
This is against a background where the issues that previously dominated debate have shrunk in importance.
Electors' attitudes to issues are coloured by a greater relative concern about the economy, which is now rated the top election issue when in June last year it was well behind climate change and the carbon tax (twin aspects of the same issue).
This is making voters more conservative in their judgments and more likely to worry about issues which favour the Liberals' perceived strength in economic matters, or to worry about non-economic issues in ways which favour that perceived strength.
There has also been a diffusion of concern over a wider number of issues as the battles are won or lost and the war moves on.
The contentious issues of last year were the carbon tax (and climate change in general), the mining tax and refugees. Gay marriage was also a contentious issue, although different from the others as it wasn't supported by either party leader.
The government argued that once the carbon legislation was passed the heat would come out of it, and there seems to be some superficial support for that proposition in the figures.
In June last year the carbon tax was the most important issue, with 59 per cent relevance. By December that had dropped to 16 per cent.
Drill down more deeply and a lot of the drop in concern about the carbon tax is due to Labor voters having moved on -- many Liberal voters still harbour a strong resentment.
And the problem for Gillard here is that she needs something to change, because if nothing changes Abbott stays ahead. It doesn't help her if the aggrieved just tick it and add it to their list.
The asylum-seeker issue is interesting because it doesn't appear to concern Liberal or Labor voters in our sample much, but it does concern Greens, who are not part of the constituency that Gillard needs to win.
She has similar problems on the other issues, which means there is nothing here to turn the Labor ship of state around.
Gillard also has a problem with "the narrative". Labor has had two narrative strategies during this parliament. One is to boost its record, the other is to portray Abbott as relentlessly negative.
For some reason its supporters have trouble clearly enunciating its achievements. The two biggest arguments advanced in its favour are tribal -- "ALP always does a better job than the Liberals, looking after the working class" -- or anti-Tony Abbott: "Could not vote for alternative while Abbott is leader".
These may be good arguments to unite the team, but they are not arguments that will convert, because they don't reach outside the team.
By contrast, many Liberal supporters seem to have a well-articulated list. "I hate this government because of bad industrial relations laws, carbon tax, other taxes, excessive regulation, too much government spending" and so on.
Because this list provides reasons that don't depend on a person's underlying political orientation or personal inclination, these are arguments that can convert, at the same time as uniting the team.
Which leaves Labor only with the negative "Dr No" strategy.
This strategy does seem to have some legs. When asked their level of approval for Abbott, 17 per cent of our sample use "negative" to describe him and a number of these are Liberals.
Some Liberals use the word in his defence: "Cast as a negative leader but isn't it the job of the opposition to oppose?"
Others seem to accept the criticism "When is he going to stop being so NEGATIVE and show us his vision?"
This criticism doesn't seem to go too deep, however. When asked who is their preferred prime minister, only 2 per cent of people use the word negative about Abbott, and none of those is intending to change their vote from the last election.
And we can expect more speeches from Abbott advancing policies providing a ready rebuttal to the claim he can do nothing but criticise. So it looked like we were in for more of the same until Kevin Rudd's supporters increased their efforts.
This makes it easy for Abbott to refrain from political pugilism and impossible for Gillard to establish a new narrative as Labor knocks itself out of the ring, at least for the duration of the leadership contest.
And Rudd himself is doing nothing to establish an alternative strategy. His claim to be PM rests on little more than the complaint that he was robbed. He has yet to say what he would do differently from last time, or from Gillard.
Whether the ALP any longer has the ability to govern will be the biggest political issue in 2012.
This article was first published in The Australian on February 6, 2012.