The look on the faces of Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull spoke volumes during question time on the last day of parliament before the federal election. Gone was the indifference, the smirks, the arrogance of an opposition riding high in the polls at the expense of a fractured Labor government. With the change in leadership from Julia Gillard to Kevin Rudd came a realisation on the Coalition front benches that they were in for a fight.
What began as an all out assault on a resurrected Kevin Rudd's credibility gradually, albeit reluctantly, changed to questions on policies past and present as it dawned on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey that Kevin Rudd was boxing them in before their very eyes. It was a masterly display of leadership skills justifying in one sense the painful decision to replace Julia Gillard as Prime Minister. Rudd's tactic was as simple as it was brilliant: elevate the debate to sensible discussion on policy while rejecting the vitriolic slanging matches of personal politics (playing the man not the ball) by stigmatising it as the old way of doing things - "old politics". Rudd was in effect stripping his opponents of their most effective weapon to date. Even as Coalition backbenchers bellowed their usual belligerent interjections Kevin Rudd continued to ignore them, ploughing on with his theme of a more respectful, vitriol-free parliament. After all, isn't this what the people have been asking for? The backbenchers seemed to be oblivious to the tactic but Abbott - himself a master tactician - was awake up to it very quickly.
The tactic clearly has a more far reaching purpose than a last day debate in parliament. In the coming election campaign the Coalition will roll out its battery of ads almost exclusively designed to discredit Rudd as the architect of Labor's internal woes and questioning his ability to keep his word. If Rudd can portray the ads as just more of the same negative politicking from a policy-free opposition he will not only blunt the ads' effectiveness but inhibit Abbott's most lethal weapon as an opposition leader. The more they roll out the ads or the more Abbott tries to paint Rudd as a schemer not to be trusted the more it will look as though Abbott and Co are stuck in a groove of destructive negativity. In fact that may prove to be just the case. It also signals something else for the electorate to consider: if the Coalition cannot focus on a campaign based on policies - and policy details at that - can they be trusted to govern the country? Whatever the case may be it's obvious the Labor Party won't be the easy pickings the Coalition thought it would be. It looks like it's game on.