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View from The Hill

Day 21: Abbott brings in the girls to give him a character reference

Bridget and Frances Abbott bring some women power, introducing their Dad at his campaign launch. AAP/Alan Porritt

Increasingly confident of victory, but with fingers tightly crossed against any last minute hitches, Tony Abbott projected a cautious and touch humble persona at today’s campaign launch.

The opposition leader kept his immediate promises modest, but was much bolder when he was talking a decade on.

In the short term, there is a carrot for self-funded retirees - increasing the eligibility thresholds for the seniors health card.

These people are a core constituency for the Coalition. But the message coming back is that some have been unsettled by the lack of franking on the planned paid parental scheme levy on business, which has consequences for dividends and super. Labor is capitalising on one of the few advantages the campaign has thrown up for it, targeting retirees in tough advertising.

Another small initiative, a loan scheme for apprentices, was pitched at the “Abbott battlers”, especially in western Sydney, where Labor is struggling and Kevin Rudd found the going difficult during his visit late last week.

The launch, with warm ups from Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop and Nationals leader Warren Truss, reflected all the focus group messages. Kevin Rudd is a “fake”. The election is all about “trust” - the trust deficit is apparently much bigger even than the fiscal deficit. People want “reassuring”.

The Coalition has neatly turned Rudd’s “new way” back on him, using it to its own advantage. Rudd doesn’t talk about a “new way” so much these days, but Abbott cuts through with the logic that the only real “new way” is to get a new government. “Choose change and there are few problems that cannot be improved,” he said.

AAP/Dan Peled

Talking about the long-term, Abbott didn’t hold back. He declared that within a decade, the budget surplus would be 1% of GDP, defence spending 2% of GDP, the private health insurance insurance rebate would be fully restored (that is, the means test scrapped), and each year government would be a smaller percentage of the economy.

Would such ambitions be achievable? Who knows. Presumably if they became dodgy they would be reined back or scrapped later. But anyway, a Coalition government might not be around as long as that. The Labor government, if it is defeated, will have only lasted six years.

Abbott’s emphasis is on keeping promises in the first term, as well as convincing people he would hit the ground running. The first day of a Coalition government was looking a bit frenetic: he’d be instructing the public service to prepare the carbon tax repeal legislation and giving directions for “operation sovereign borders”, as well as a few other things happening. Then there is an agenda for the first hundred days.

Abbott is unhesitating about his plans but desperate to avoid projecting a sense of entitlement. “Give my team a chance,” he appeals. He promises: “I won’t let you down.”

The launch’s look and tone was traditional and low-key. Without razzmatazz. When Abbott finished speaking, there was no exuberant, arms-aloft rallying gesture – instead, a half wave to the crowd.

The out-of-the-box surprise was having daughters Frances and Bridget introduce him with folksy, anecdotal speeches, designed to make Dad look human, strong, reliable (and of course woman-friendly).

AAP/Alan Porritt

“For us, he’s not just the guy on TV, he’s the man, along with our Mum, who has helped us become the women we are today,” Frances said. She told a story about her “netball Dad”, a ferocious barracker from the sidelines. The tale had a political message: “For a man who has never put on a netball skirt, Dad was always giving us netball advice - it was only a few years later when I realised that the advice he gave was more about life than just the sport. He said, ‘you must give it everything you’ve got, play as a team, watch out for each other, look ahead, stay focused, enjoy yourself, always get back up and don’t forget to shake hands’.”

Bridget rammed home the positives: Dad treated everyone with respect; was a listener; a learner; not judgemental; didn’t think he was smarter than you were. “That’s the type of Dad he is for us and if elected, I know that’s the type of prime minister he will be for Australia.”

For both Kevin Rudd and Abbott, their families are crucial and these families in turn are putting shoulders to the wheel for their fathers’ campaigns.

Abbott has been lucky. Rudd, lauded and returned to the leadership for his campaigning skills, has not proved to be the great campaigner his supporters had hoped.

Things again went awry this weekend, when the PM switched attention to foreign affairs and the crisis in Syria. It was perfectly reasonable to call the Saturday meeting of senior ministers to receive a briefing on the Syrian events - Australia is about to assume the chair at the United Nations Security Council. But after this was reported (wrongly) as Rudd suspending his campaign to deal with the Syrian issue, and he fulfilled an engagement to film the ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet, his critics were able to have a field day. Rudd should have been clear about what he was doing.

Appearing on the ABC’s Insiders this morning, Rudd was heavily on the defensive. His admission that Labor had not had a mandate for the carbon tax was another golden moment for the opposition.

In Labor circles, some are talking about how Paul Keating managed to turn around the 1993 election and grab victory in the “unwinnable election”.

Rudd said, when he went into this election, that he was the underdog, although to many observers he appeared to have a better prospect of victory than Keating did at the beginning of the 1993 campaign. But most things that have happened since have much diminished the chance of doing a Keating.

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