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Rudd's dipping popularity offers new story line

Nick Bryant | 05:04 UK time, Monday, 15 February 2010

More so perhaps than other journalists, political correspondents love a fresh storyline; and never more so than when it arrives in an election year complete with a lively ensemble of new characters.

For the past three years, the narrative has seemed like a series of dreary repeats: Kevin Rudd dominates parliament, the polls and the country. But the Australian prime minister's personal popularity has dropped significantly, and one poll has shown the Liberal-led coalition nudging past the Labor party for the first time in three years. In Tony Abbott, the opposition has chanced upon a leader who is not hugely popular - although more so than his two predecessors - but who has done enough in the polls to allow political hacks to write the first instalments of the Liberal comeback story.

As we noted a couple of blogs ago, the post-Copenhagen politics of climate change have been a major problem for the Rudd government. After all, Tony Abbott's mantra that the emissions trading scheme (ETS) is a giant tax which would be ruinous to a resources-based economy has much more resonance in the absence of a comprehensive global deal and without binding commitments from China and India.

Now the government faces grave allegations that the mishandling of its national insulation programme, which was part both of its environmental strategy and its stimulus package, contributed to the deaths of four electricians, and possibly over 80 housefires.

Given the repeated warnings beforehand about the possible safety hazards involved in implementing the scheme, there have been loud calls for the resignation of Peter Garrett, the environment minister and the former lead singer of Midnight Oil.

Tony Abbott has made them most forcibly, arguing that had Mr Garrett been a company director in NSW, "he would be charged with industrial manslaughter". In a week when his famously outspoken new finance spokesman, Senator Barnaby Joyce, made a series of economic gaffes, Mr Abbott noted: "Barnaby Joyce hasn't been responsible for programmes that have killed people". Strong rhetoric, especially before the findings of coronial inquests into the deaths. As I write, Peter Garrett continues to enjoy the support of the prime minister, and thus retains his job.

Competent managerialism has always been central to Kevin Rudd's appeal, but his government has become accident-prone, according to its critics, in the implementation of policy. Its much-vaunted GroceryWatch and FuelWatch have been widely deemed to be failures; the school improvements scheme was a cost blow-out; there have been ongoing problems at the Defence Department over the payment of diggers; and the government's emissions trading scheme, the centerpiece of its environmental strategy, stands no chance of winning enactment in the Senate, where the government does not have a majority. If the government cannot properly manage an insulation programme, asks the opposition, what chance does it have of running an emissions trading scheme?

The Rudd government is already making economic competence its major selling point - and there was more good news on that front last week when unemployment unexpectedly went down. Clearly, it no longer wants to fight a climate change election and would prefer to fight an economy election - an election, it has to be said, which Mr Rudd remains the strong favourite to win.

But the once-Teflon coated man is getting more unfavourable coverage than at any stage of his prime ministership, whether the criticisms concern his lack of communications skills or his failure to dominate an audience of well-informed school children during a live broadcast of ABC's Q&A programme from Old Parliament House in Canberra last week.

That's a new political story of which he is the main author.

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