View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Kevin Rudd did save a good deal of furniture

Kevin Rudd will not recontest the Labor leadership. AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Abbott has had his much anticipated election victory and Australia once again, to the great relief of most, has a majority federal government.

The Abbott win is solid and comfortable, but by no means as large as many had anticipated.

Labor has lost several seats in western Sydney, but it has not suffered the massive rout there the party had feared. Treasurer Chris Bowen has survived - a relief for the ALP, which in opposition will need his economic expertise. Bowen is also a possible future leader.

In Queensland it appeared last night that Labor would hold all its seats but two. Tasmania has seen heavy losses and several seats have gone in Victoria, where the ALP had particular difficulties because of its high vote in 2010.

In assessing Kevin Rudd’s performance, it depends where you’re coming from. Rudd’s destabilisation over the last three years has contributed mightily to the perception of a fractured and disunited government. But his return to the leadership has significantly contained the swing against Labor - which under Julia Gillard was likely to be huge - to a relatively modest level.

This is particularly the case in Queensland, where without Rudd Labor would have been much worse off.

One wonders how much closer Rudd could have come if he had run a better campaign. In contrast to Tony Abbott’s discipline, Rudd strayed off message at times, did not appear at his best (certainly compared with 2007) and brought forward some policies which had minimal credibility.

Admittedly, it was always going to be hard going. But his “new way” was a gift to Tony Abbott, who quickly said the only new way was a change of government, and he wasn’t able to maintain the positive message on which he’d promised to campaign. Labor quickly had to resort to negativity and fear mongering, which did not cut the mustard.

As one after another Labor figure appeared last night, there was a common call for putting aside the divisions that had been so costly in the last three years, and for achieving a spirit of unity as the party pulls itself together into an effective opposition.

In his concession speech, Rudd dwelt on his achievement in holding up the vote. “I’m proud that despite all the prophets of doom that we have preserved our federal parliamentary Labor Party as a viable fighting force for the future,” he said, pointing (wrongly, as it turned out) to holding the line in Queensland and to the fact that every cabinet minister had been returned.

Rudd announced that he would not be recontesting the leadership, declaring that the “Australian people deserve a fresh start”.

But senior Labor figures, including Greg Combet (now out of parliament), believe Rudd should quit the parliament to draw a line under the Rudd-Gillard era. While Rudd is in parliament, there will always be a Rudd factor.

It’s not yet clear who will emerge as the ALP’s new leader - possibilities are Bill Shorten, Chris Bowen or Anthony Albanese. What is clear is that he will have a big job.

But now Labor becomes the second storyline.

The focus will be on how Tony Abbott shapes his government and the nation. He has been an extraordinarily effective opposition leader, but the challenges of power are very different. Abbott has given some hostages to the future. In particular, his insistence that he would have a double dissolution if the Senate will not allow him to repeal the carbon tax is potentially a risky undertaking.

Labor has come close enough to open the possibility of trying to force Abbott’s hand into a premature election.

How all this works out, however, will depend on the composition of the new Senate, which comes in mid-next year, and tonight we do not know precisely how the Senate numbers will play out.

The challenges for Abbott most immediately will be to manage the economy in an uncertain world, and convincing the electorate that he can run a government effectively.

His emphasis during the campaign has been on reassurance and on pledging that he will not break promises.

He will have to be careful that his actions are in line with his words because he inherits an electorate which has become infused with disillusionment and cynicism - an electorate that is hard for any government to soothe and keep on side.

Abbott’s victory speech last night sounded much of a repeat of his campaigning lines, with his promises of a government of “no surprises and no excuses”; within three years, he repromised, the carbon tax would be gone, the boats would be stopped and the budget would be on track for a reasonable surplus.

He said the people had elected a government that “understands the limits of power as well as its potential.”

“Australia is under new management and Australia is once more open for business”.

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