Grattan on Friday: hung parliament Mark II? Surely not!

Kevin Rudd’s return to the prime ministership has been somewhat of a knock for Bob Katter’s party’s election prospects. AAP/Lukas Coch

With the polls so close, could the unthinkable happen? Might we see another hung parliament?

On the balance of probabilities, surely not. But just consider, hypothetically, what it would be like if, say, Bob Katter, of the Katter’s Australian Party (KAP) and Andrew Wilkie, the independent from Tasmania, shared the balance of power.

Be interesting, wouldn’t it?

As things stand, they could be the only House of Representatives crossbenchers after the election, unless Greens Adam Bandt defied the odds to hang on (maybe helped by a backlash in his seat of Melbourne against the harsh bipartisanship on boats). Clive Palmer, standing in Fairfax, Queensland, has a high profile but a low chance. On the whole this is not a good election in which to be raising independent or small party flags.

In political circles people joke that if Labor or the Coalition starts to campaign on the danger of another hung parliament, there will be a stampede, to one side or the other.

Liberal lobbyist and commentator Grahame Morris (John Howard’s former chief of staff) argues that “when you run around the country seat by seat, it seems the best Kevin Rudd can aim for is an ugly hung parliament, which nobody wants”, because Rudd has to hold what he has (in net terms) and win seats to make up for those vacated by the country independents who supported the government, just to tread water.

Labor sources say if the election were this weekend, the result could go narrowly either way. A handful of key seats are on 50-50.

Around the Liberal traps there has been a rumour that Katter, who is running a big batch of candidates, might preference Labor. He is, after all. good mates with Kevin Rudd.

But Katter told The Conversation yesterday that his preferences will be a much more complicated picture. In the first instance, KAP preferences will be “ruthlessly” going to smaller parties – “our brothers and cousins”, as he calls them.

These include the DLP (Katter is very pleased with the performance of John Madigan in the Senate) and South Australian senator Nick Xenophon who’s “a bit of a blood brother”, on issues like the Coles/Woolworths domination of the market. And Palmer’s party will have to be preferenced, because KAP needs preferences back. (Bob doesn’t say so but you get the feeling Clive falls into the “cousins” rather than “brothers” category.)

As for the majors, it will be a case-by-case proposition. “There will be very serious discussions with [federal Liberal director] Brian Loughnane, and I will be a party to those”, Katter says.

He also has a meeting coming up with Rudd about government issues. While Katter likes Rudd and has done him the odd favour, Rudd’s return has been something of a knock for KAP, which potentially draws support from both ends of the political spectrum.

While Katter talks lower house seats, realistically his best prospect (apart from his own seat) is the Senate in Queensland where the KAP candidate is James Blundell, the country singer. Katter needs to attract as many preferences as he can to KAP in the Queensland Senate contest.

KAP preferences may be of little interest in many places, but what he does in Queensland is significant for the major parties because Labor’s resurgence under Rudd has made some Liberal National party seats suddenly vulnerable. A strong ALP performance in Queensland is vital to Rudd’s chances of working a miracle for Labor nationally, including to offset expected losses in NSW.

NSW remains Labor’s weak spot, and that’s even before the fallout from this week’s ICAC corruption findings against former state ministers Ian Macdonald and Eddie Obeid. To have Obeid out yesterday saying how the Labor people now condemning him used to beat a path to his door is, to put it mildly, unhelpful.

If Rudd happened to win this election, he would have completely rewritten the text book for campaigning.

He will go into the formal campaign, expected to start within days, having hit the population with a range of cuts and imposts.

The FBT car crack down, a hike in the tax on cigarettes, a bank deposits levy and much besides in today’s economic statement: it all goes against the orthodoxy of what to do before a poll.

Rudd has been forced by circumstances (a revenue write down, new spending on the PNG solution) into the economic statement but it is hardly an ideal launching pad.

The opposition has been presented with a wealth of “nasties” to campaign against. The car industry has been up in arms; the car leasing industry plans an advertising campaign. The tobacco industry is aggro. Speculation about the bank levy had bank shares dip yesterday.

It is an open question how people will react to the pricks from Labor although you would have to think they would cost some votes.

Despite this plethora of ammunition, the opposition still looks uncomfortable. While it is useful for the Coalition to have all these points of attack, it also adds to the impression that it is reactive.

The Coalition had become too used to a static target. It had logistics carefully planned – the Liberal campaign HQ is already operating in Melbourne, but it needs more than organisation.

The Rudd phenomenon is unconventional and unpredictable. There is plenty that is shambolic about it – for example, there was genuine doubt yesterday about precisely when the economic statement would come. So far, however, that element of chaos hasn’t harmed Rudd. It’s either been well enough disguised from the voters or it has become incorporated (at least for the honeymoon) as some sort of quaint part of his brand.

When the election’s over, we may cast back to this point and conclude that the result had already been decided. But as we look at the situation now, it appears that the campaign itself will be critical for the outcome.