Could voters really be this dim?

Like so many others, I have watched the transformation of the opinion polls since the return of Mr. Celebrity, aka Kevin Rudd. However, it may be useful to compare the poll figures with projections from online bookmakers. As at the time of writing, the odds have narrowed but, according to Sportsbet, still strongly favour the Coalition, $1.36 to the Australian Labor Party, $3.00. Some have argued that, provided betting volumes are reasonable, the betting market provides a more accurate reflection of political reality than opinion polls.

If the final vote does reflect the narrowing the polls have seen since Rudd’s return, we may be witnessing the emergence of a result-changing swathe of young, poorly informed but tech-savvy voters. It is astounding that Rudd’s shaving mishap, with its appeal to Twitter and Facebook devotees, may influence the election result. With almost unlimited information available at the touch of a computer keyboard, ignorance is now voluntary, but recent events suggest that many young and impressionable minds are unable to distinguish crucial or important information from the blizzard of trivia.

Technology cannot impart wisdom. If regard for our leaders comes to rest on little more than superficialities, we must fear for the future of any rational policy debate.

It may be a comfort that Labor hardheads’ attitude to Rudd is a cynical one. They see his role not as winning but as saving Labor MPs from oblivion. Go for an election before the end of August, they urge, and the coming defeat will be relatively moderate. But Rudd may believe that he is on a trajectory to victory and vindication. The prime Minister and his party may be at cross purposes.

Even if Rudd is minded to go early rather than later, there is unfinished business to tidy up before heading to the polls. To take just one glaring example, he must stich up a credible policy to stop or at least slow illegal boat arrivals. His rushed trip to Papua New Guinea and consequent revelation of a "PNG Solution" may reflect more desperation than his party and the media cheer-squad initially have been prepared to admit.

Kevin Rudd’s deal with Papua New Guinea over illegal boat entrants has been hailed as a masterly circuit breaker that would, in one blow, finally defeat the people smugglers and deliver a possible election victory. Of course, the agreement is a step in the right direction. Tony Abbott has shrewdly welcomed this announcement, which, of itself, is a total reversal of previous Labor Party policy.

It is a wonder to behold the almost infinite flexibility of Labor apparatchiks such as Senator Doug Cameron. He once opposed sending people to Manus Island on the basis that it was in breach of the Refugee Convention, but now asserts it is quite OK.  Likewise, we can also expect similar intellectual contortions from Fairfax Media and the ABC as they celebrate Rudd’s out-manoeuvring of the hated Abbott666. Of course, for many on the Left, power is really the main game.

If the policy package also included turning back boats on the high seas and the institution of temporary protection visas for illegals already in Australia, the deal would make sense. But as the Rudd policy now stands, we still have no physical border protection. Our navy, stripped of its primary function to guard the country, has been relegated to the role of a rescue-and-escort service.

In a smoke-and-mirrors exercise, Rudd has been at pains to give the impression that the whole problem has been transferred to Papua New Guinea. The extra billions which Australia will doubtless have to pony up to fund this process have yet to be spelt out.

That this agreement is all about appearances becomes obvious from the moment you examine the numbers. Would Papua New Guinea be prepared to accommodate all the illegal boat people at the current rate of arrival? Would they be prepared to accept say, 46,000, arrivals, or only 3,000? Cleverly, no numbers have been spelt out so far. What we can assume is that Papua New Guinea would be unlikely to accept any more arrivals than could safely be accommodated on Manus Island. Once again, we are back to seeming to solve a problem, an old Rudd trick, so desperate is he to avoid the humiliation of adopting all of the Coalition’s policy.

Maybe the bluff will work. Perhaps the people smugglers are not smart enough to work the numbers. If they get wise to the fact that Rudd is creating a substitute for a clear border protection policy, they could collapse this new policy in no time flat and we would be back to square one.

Kevin Rudd’s recent policy contortions incorporate the assumption, so dear to the Left, that the people really loathe Tony Abbott and are yearning for an excuse, any excuse, not to vote for the Coalition.

Whatever the truth of this, one can detect in public surveys widespread doubt about Abbott’s leadership credentials.  Now is the time for the alternative PM to be his own intelligent self, for even if he lacks a certain charisma, his authenticity is far better than endless mechanical repetition of Rudd’s shop-worn clichés and focus-grouped reversals of policy.

As for Kevin Rudd, if his new bluff on illegal boat arrivals is to work, it must quickly. Nothing would be more lethal to his prospects than a continued flow of boat arrivals during an election campaign. If that occurs, Rudd would be seen to have trapped himself.

Perhaps a still-cynical electorate will also demand concrete answers on other issues, such as the budget deficit and government debt. But it appears that the press gallery will not be asking the tough questions. That was certainly the impression created by the kid-glove treatment he was accorded at his recent National Press Club appearance.

The next few weeks will be crucial in showing whether the electorate as a whole has succumbed to a new paradigm of superficiality.

Christopher Carr is a frequent contributor to Quadrant Online

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