Poll delivers knockout blow

IF SOMETHING looks too good to be true, then it probably is.

But that pessimistic thought is unlikely to have bothered Julia Gillard as she picked up her papers on Monday to discover that not one, but two opinion polls purported to show that both she and her party were surging forward in a manner which was starting to look all but irresistible.

The great god who rules them all, Newspoll, actually had her on the brink of victory and its trusty companion, Nielsen, had her getting there fast. Moreover, both showed her personal approval on the rise and put her clearly ahead of Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister. Could it get any better than this?

Well yes, actually. The same polls showed that the voters would still much rather have Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister; were Labor to change leaders, the election, on Monday's figures, would be a shoo in. But that was no longer the point. The obvious message was that while Labor would almost certainly win with Rudd, the party could now get there with Gillard. And given the very large pool of resentment against Rudd in caucus, that is effectively a knock-out.

A few die-hards are still talking about one swallow not making summer, false dawns and rogue polls, but their warnings will be drowned out by the collective sigh of relief from Gillard's more substantial cheer squad. At last it appears that she may be able to justify the faith they showed in her some 27 months ago and pay them back for all the angst and anguish they have suffered ever since on her behalf. So Gillard can now shake herself free of albatross Kevin and go back to moving forward, or whatever the new slogan will be.

There may, of course, be both hiccup and stuff-ups along the way, but since the beginning of July the trendline has been undeniable. Labor is regaining momentum and the coalition has definitely stalled and is now starting to slip back. Even if the current polls prove altogether too rosy, Gillard can fairly claim to have turned the Titanic around.

Or can she? Is it really case that the voters are actually thinking more kindly of her and her party, or is it simply a matter of default - that disillusionment, distrust and even a touch of detestation for the opposition and its leader are starting to set in? To Gillard, for the moment at least, it probably doesn't matter, but for Tony Abbott it could be the start of a serious crisis.

Abbott has never really been popular with Liberal voters as a whole, or, more importantly, within his own party room. He has always been considered too undisciplined, too unpredictable, too extreme, too Catholic. His only real qualification for the leadership was his ability to attract and deliver votes and obviously while he had the coalition ten points ahead in the polls his position remained untouchable.

But there was always a feeling among many of the true conservatives that once the election was won and the right people were back on the Treasury benches, he would have served his purpose and perhaps even be approaching his use-by date; that in the not too distant future it might be time to think about replacing him with someone who was, well, more like a real Liberal in the safe and steady John Howard mould.

But now there are signs, so far no more than that, but still distinctly ominous, that he may not even get them across the line. That which looked like the biggest electoral avalanche in Australian history is turning into no more than a trickle, if not drying up altogether. It could, of course, be an aberration, a mere statistical glitch in the polling. It could be temporary relief about Gillard finally doing something, however ineffective, about asylum seekers. It could be a momentary hiatus caused by any one of a number of things - the savage budget and job cuts from the new conservative premiers, reaction to the reminders from Abbott's student past, even sympathy for Gillard at the loss of her father.

But it could also be more deep-seated: a dawning realisation that Abbott's rodomontades about the carbon tax were wild exaggerations, and so, by extension, perhaps he cannot be trusted about anything else either. Perhaps all the stories about the Mad Monk had some substance to them; perhaps Tony Windsor was telling the truth about Abbott offering to do anything to become prime minister except selling his arse. Perhaps Abbott is, in fact, all ambition and bluster. And if that impression takes hold and the voters decide it is not what they want after all, then Abbott will quickly become dispensable.

And it is not as though there is a lack of potential replacements. Always towering over Abbott here has always been a shadow no smaller than Malcolm Turnbull's ego, and the hard fact is that the man Abbott replaced is still overwhelmingly preferred by the electorate as a whole and is now the choice even of coalition voters. But should the true rulers of the Liberal Party decide that Turnbull is still not really one of them, there is a much less edgy alternative in Howard's great big bear, Joe Hockey, the man originally touted as a replacement for Turnbull but discarded when he refused to bow to the dictates of the hard right warlord Nick Minchin.

Hockey used to be treated as a bit of a clown, hopelessly out of his depth as shadow Treasurer, but he has learnt on the job and now qualifies as a substantial politician - particularly when put against Abbott, always seen as something of a political weathercock. It is not time to roll out the tumbrel yet, but there is restlessness in the ranks, and suddenly it is on the other side if the despatch box. Maybe, just maybe, the times they are a-changin'.

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