For many Australians, the idea of opposition leader Tony Abbott becoming prime minister requires an enormous leap of imagination. Nicknamed the Mad Monk, partly because he once trained to become a Catholic priest and partly because he's got a reputation for being so erratic, he continues to face a plausibility problem.
I was in Brisbane for the official launch of the Liberal campaign, and the auditorium was full of MPs, Senators, party activists, and perhaps even a leader himself, who probably started the year thinking they had little chance of winning the election, but who now sniff victory. The polls continue to suggest the Liberal Party could be on the verge of an unexpected comeback, and that Tony Abbott might become the Steven Bradbury of Australian politics. For the uninitiated, Steven Bradburywas the Aussie speed skater who won an Olympic gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City games because his rivals were involved in a massive pile-up on the final bend, allowing him to skate through to a wholly unexpected victory. Certainly, Abbott displayed enormous caution at the launch, not wanting to trip, slip or stumble at his big, solo set-piece event of the campaign. He was trying to present himself as a safe, risk-free choice.
He wasn't putting a vision before the Australian people so much as offering a restoration. With John Howard in the front row, whom Abbott described as his "hero", the present Liberal leader pledged the return of stable, competent and principled government which he claimed were hallmarks of the Howard era. He called it "grown-up government".
Attacking Julia Gillard, he pledged to "bury an era of gutless spin" and to end the Labor "soap opera", as he put it.
After listening to one speaker after another, as they served as warm-up acts for their leader, my notebook is full of words like 'competency", "stability", "rectitude" and "common sense", which were applied to the Liberals. Perhaps the best one-liner of the day came from the Nationals leader, Warren Truss, which is itself a measure of how bizarre and unpredictable this election has become. He accused the Labor government of 'loitering without intent".
Absent from Tony Abbott's speech was any great vision or big idea. Significantly, the speech did not include a single new promise. There's a policy break-down here .
This was not so much a speech about the future as the everyday. He was basically saying that when it comes to the routine, day-to-day running of the government the Liberals could bring much greater experience, aptitude and professionalism.
After the wackiness of the past seven days, which surely must have come to a head over the weekend when the former Labor leader Mark Latham tackled Julia Gillard in his new capacity as a guest correspondent for Channel Nine's Sixty Minutes, I suspect this could be the week when Tony Abbott comes under greater scrutiny and a new seriousness creeps into the campaign.
Knowing that he is going to be the focus of more attention, another of Tony Abbott's aims at the launch was to create as small a target as possible.
Aside from the Liberal launch and the Latham ambush, the other main event over the weekend was the meeting in Brisbane between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Again, it almost defied analogy.
This week will surely be more even-keeled than last. But who knows? As one senior reporter put it to me today, the only thing that could make things much more bizarre right now would be if Harold Holt re-emerged from the sea.