Grattan on Friday: Rudd packages Labor’s product, which is mostly himself

The “new” Kevin is increasingly reminding observers of the “old” Kevin. AAP/Lukas Coch

It is so Kevin. A couple of weeks back into the prime ministership, a million things to do – and Rudd’s nipping off to Papua New Guinea.

Just wanted to see the regional neighbours, he explained when asked about the trip. The agenda for the talks will include the problems of the PNG hospitals system and how we can help.

Admirable, but kind of wacky when you are on the cusp of the election fight of your life.

As Rudd moves back into The Lodge (though Brisbane will also be home for the moment), we see him reclaiming his house in a political sense as well. He’s cleaning it up, sprucing some furniture, getting other items out of storage.

On the party front, this week he put forward a dramatic reform to Labor rules. Meanwhile, addressing the economic debate, he laid out an agenda based on a consensus approach (shades of Bob Hawke) to boost productivity.

Rudd is not without long-term thinking, but what he’s presently doing is concentrated on from now until election day (with an August or September date appearing more likely than later).

Thus the proposed rule change to prevent challenges to a Labor PM is all about saying: if you elect me, you won’t get someone else.

As the proposal is currently framed, the requirement for a petition signed by 75% of caucus to trigger a ballot would apply to both prime ministers and opposition leaders.

But when questioned, Rudd makes it clear he is interested only in what happens in government. If, at the caucus meeting on July 22 (in Balmain Town Hall, incidentally, not in Canberra) that will consider the rule changes, someone wants to propose a lower threshold for opposition, Rudd probably won’t be fussed.

His plan for a business-union-government pact to make Australia more competitive and increase productivity growth to 2% or above dusts off ideas from his earlier prime ministership, and indeed opposition days.

As part of a round of speeches to mark Australia Day in 2010 Rudd spruiked the need to lift annual productivity growth to 2%. Tony Abbott said at the time that speech was “typical Rudd.” He described yesterday’s National Press Club one as “just more flim-flam”.

Some of the agenda items outlined by Rudd, including tackling high electricity prices and streamlining approval processes for major projects are familiar from Julia Gillard’s days. They might or might not get further if Rudd were re-elected.

But the point is that Rudd put it all together into a neat story, crafted after eyeballing business and unions (he said he’s had four meetings with the Business Council of Australia and the ACTU).

Politics is inevitably much about packaging and Rudd is doing that very well. And he himself is the core of the package. Gillard could say a lot of the same things but didn’t have the credibility to make the story work. The opinion polls haven’t risen on the back of new policy, which we don’t yet have. They are driven by the switch of personality.

But there is hard reality to be grappled with too. The unemployment rate rose yesterday to 5.7%, the highest in nearly four years. Rudd was asked if he planned to address the very low level of the dole. He said Cabinet would discuss this, and also the supporting parent situation. He could make no promises, but “we will be doing what we can in these areas”. But not too much, presumably, because he also reaffirmed a commitment to the budget numbers.

And on the productivity agenda, while the BCA declared it was pleased to hear the PM “talking about important economic issues”, it added pointedly that “any hesitance we may have comes from the reality that we’ve been pointing to these issues for a long time and very little serious action has been taken”. That’s apart from business wanting to go a lot further than Rudd.

While Rudd addressed the economic debate, behind the scenes the Gonski negotiations were battling on. Today Rudd is due to meet Campbell Newman; among the states Queensland has been second only to Western Australia in its negativity about the schools package.

It will be interesting to hear how Rudd spins their talks. Queensland, Rudd’s home state, is where Labor has the most potential to win seats, and federal Labor has been painting Abbott as in the Newman slash-and-burn mould.

In the Abbott camp, they struggle with questions of strategy. Just over a fortnight ago, the Liberals had an election date, a campaign mapped out, and the apparent certainty of heaps of seats cascading the Coalition’s way on election night.

Now the momentum and initiative are with Rudd. Abbott is forced back to carping, which was easy against Gillard but more jarring with voters when it’s about Rudd (yesterday he said Rudd would have “phone-stalked” journalists to talk about Gillard).

Abbott couldn’t afford to take Rudd’s bait and debate him, but looks bad for dodging the challenge. He’s saving policy up for the five week campaign proper so he seems to have little fresh to say (he did release a policy on deregulation this week but it was hardly something to catch the average voter’s attention.

He needs to nuance his strategy for this period before the formal campaign, so he can get more attention of a positive kind.

But things are complicated by having to guess how long this pre-campaign period will be.

He is being urged by some to go after Rudd more strongly, to counter the impression of running away, and to bring some policy forward.

On the other hand there is also a school of thought saying he should just hold his nerve and not try to compete with the Rudd whirlwind – after all, the arithmetic of this election, coming out of the hung parliament, remains in the Coalition’s favour.

There is a dilemma for the Liberals. Do they treat Rudd as a balloon full of hot air – stick the pins in and hope they penetrate? Or do they accept that his resurrection has changed the nature of the debate, which requires matching him at a more forensic level?

Abbott has had a while now to consider the new paradigm. The next week should start to show what, if any, adaptations he is making to it.