Grattan on Friday: it’s all about the economy – and Queensland (not forgetting NSW)

Kevin Rudd had the most surprising moment of the week, recruiting former Queensland premier Peter Beattie to run as a candidate. AAP/Lukas Coch

This first campaign week, at least so far, has been nobody’s child. It has seen plenty of activity, spending and scares, the Murdoch factor, and Peter Beattie’s spectacular re-entry.

But neither Kevin Rudd nor Tony Abbott has decisively “won” the week or, perhaps, even captured voters’ full attention. The pace has stepped up, but the pre-campaign had been so intense that it seems a quantitative rather than qualitative change.

The private polling, depending who you listen to, appears to have the sides with little between them or with the Coalition ahead. When the election was called, Monday’s Newspoll had the ALP trailing 48-52%.

As has been much canvassed, the chief battle areas, already well worn by the leaders, are Queensland (where Labor must make gains) and western Sydney (where it’s terrified of losses). Beattie’s arrival to contest Forde, described by one Labor source as “aspirational Boganland”, underlined the extent to which Rudd is making the election about Queensland parochialism.

Rudd, as a Queenslander, has a natural advantage in this critical state where there are nine Coalition seats on margins of under 4.6%. With the recruitment of Beattie - who has had big differences with Rudd but is close to his chief political adviser, Bruce Hawker (they worked on state campaigns together) - the PM is strengthening his assets in the north.

The captain’s pick, Beattie can be acting captain in the state when Rudd is elsewhere. When one of Labor’s weapons is the claim that Abbott would be a federal Campbell Newman, Beattie can contrast his record as premier with Newman’s slashing and burning (he’ll have to do some defending of his record as well).

And who have the Coalition got to fight on the battlefield of Queenland parochialism? Nationals leader Warren Truss? Liberals George Brandis, Peter Dutton and Ian Macfarlane? Even the Nationals Barnaby Joyce, a distinctly parochial voice, has done a runner to NSW, and seems particularly quiet in the national campaign.

This first week has put the economy at the election’s heart, with both sides making significant promises. Rudd’s $450 million for out-of-hours care for school children focused on cost of living; Abbott’s $5 billion company tax cut gives help to most businesses, including small business, while being an offset for his expensive paid parental leave scheme. which is still causing internal angst in the opposition. (Among the quotes of the week was Abbott telling us he is a “bigger and better man” for coming to believe in generous PPL.)

Labor assaulted Coalition costings, and raised hell about the alleged prospect of a higher GST, probably covering food, under Abbott. Expect to hear a lot more about this.

There was scuffling over whether the interest rate cut was a good or bad thing or both. Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey gave the Treasury numbers another blast, declaring the opposition won’t commit to a date on a Coalition government’s return to surplus.

On Tuesday the official Treasury/Finance forecasts (PEFO) come out; the Coalition has to make a fine judgment on how far it pushes its criticisms.

The opposition’s danger zone remains costings; the question is to what extent, in the welter of claims and counter-claims, voters engage with the nitty gritty. If people are just going on general impressions, Labor’s risk is that it is perceived as having constantly changed its figures.

Asked who won the week on the economy Saul Eslake, chief economist with Bank of America Merrill Lynch gives it “probably to the Coalition” on four grounds.

First, the government started carrying the bad economic news from Friday’s economic statement. Second, Hockey’s argument that Tuesday’s interest rate cut was because the economy was weak was more convincing than the government’s one that things were going well - although, Eslake says, Hockey did not establish that the weakness was the government’s fault. Third, the company tax promise went down favourably with business - although big business remains unhappy about having to pay for the PPL. Fourth, the Coalition probably had the better of the argument about refusing to commit itself to a return-to-surplus date on the ground that it doesn’t trust the official numbers.

Labor itself believes it still has some way to go in convincing voters of its credentials on the economy. That issue is now more on ALP strategists’ minds than boat arrival policy.

Tony Abbott is not the natural campaigner Kevin Rudd is, but has kept close this week. AAP/Dave Hunt

Politically, a Liberal source gives the week up to now fractionally to Labor. “It’s hard to see that the government lost any of the days,” he says, “although the gap wasn’t great”. He points to Beattie’s domination of yesterday, and some different “nuances” between Abbott and Hockey.

The most interesting diversion has been Rudd’s stoush with Rupert Murdoch. After Monday’s Daily Telegraph screaming headline, telling readers that now they had the chance to “KICK THIS MOB OUT”, part of a pattern of anti-Labor coverage in News’ papers, and Murdoch’s needling via Twitter on the NBN, Rudd let fly.

He said Murdoch wanted an Abbott government, and asked whether this was driven by his commercial interest, preferring the Coalition’s more modest broadband policy to the NBN, in order to protect Foxtel. This had News hitting back, saying the NBN would suit Foxtel just fine.

The Rudd strategists believe that, in light of what they see as an unrelenting News campaign, television and social media must be their main messaging targets.

Rudd’s social media numbers are impressive. In the last month he has accumulated about 91,000 new Twitter followers, bringing his his total to 1.3 million. His Facebook following has increased by 11,000 to about 84,000 since the end of June. He reached 420,466 people on Facebook the day he announced the PNG solution – and 168,000 on Facebook with the shaving selfie.

During an hour on any day 30,000-40,000 people on average will see one of Rudd’s posts. In the week to August 5, about 12,000 comments were posted on his Facebook. His content on YouTube had more than 26,000 views in the last month. Rudd sees social media as particularly important in getting to young people.

There is one big difference between social and old media. A political leader is much less in charge when fronting the old media. The pressure is greater, the warts can show up more obviously. When Rudd was grilled on the ABC’s 7.30 on Wednesday, the tension, and some impatience, showed.

Abbott is trying to keep himself a calm, small target, minimising danger, hoping people will remember the past six years and not be seduced by Rudd’s “new way”.

Rudd by his circumstances and his nature is taking more risks in this campaign, one in which he is asking people to sign up to the idea that there’s a clean slate. It might be easier for him than it proved to be for Julia Gillard in 2010 to market the government as reborn. But it’s still pretty damned hard.