Great story so far, but how does it end?

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By this point in most election campaigns, a dominant narrative has generally emerged, and it’s become reasonably clear who’s going to win. In 2007, it wasn’t hard to see that the electorate was in the process of falling out of love with John Howard after WorkChoices, and deciding to take a chance on the younger, dorkier Queenslander.

The story in 2001 was equally unambiguous – with the World Trade Center in ruins and the spectre of the Tampa on the horizon, it seemed too risky to change governments. And so John Howard stormed to victory with perhaps the least catchy slogan in political history – “We decide who comes into our country and the circumstances in which they come.” It resonated with the electorate nevertheless – after all, what if the hapless, bedraggled souls that the Tampa rescued from drowning had been highly-trained al-Qaeda operatives?

Some campaigns are a contest between two strong narratives, one of which falls away at the end. For most of 2004, Mark Latham, the loopy larrikin from the mortgage belt, looked on track to upset John Howard, as extraordinary as that now seems. But in the end, the Coalition’s brilliant “L-plate Latham” characterisation proved more compelling, and today the one-time leader has been reduced to stalking his successor.

The overarching narratives in this election, though, have been far harder to pin down. Instead, we’ve been surviving on distractions – the flies buzzing around have become more interesting than the piece of meat. And the two parties have only themselves to blame for serving up such measly cuts in the first place.

The Opposition began with the perfect slogan for a campaign against Rudd: “Stand up for real action”. While the jingle‘s so annoying that it inspires fond memories of those old Meadow Lea commercials, “stand up” worked well against a man who seemed determined never to stand for anything, and of course “real action” rings true when you’re a triathlete-entering exercise freak, and your opponent flick-passes every tough decision to a subcommittee.

Let’s get something done, Tony Abbott planned to say. But the attack was so potent that Labor took real action – they dumped Rudd. And against Gillard, who seems like a cleanskin despite having been Deputy PM and has achieved a reasonable amount in education despite the BER SNAFUs, it’s proven a less effective line.

What’s more, the strident objections to the Rudd Government were defused when Labor itself admitted there were problems. By partly buying into the Coalition’s attempts to frame this contest as a referendum on Rudd, they’ve allowed the “he were okay, but stuffed up a bit” option which seems closer to the majority view than Abbott’s dramatic claim that Rudd’s was the worst Government in Australian’s history.

Labor tried the standard incumbent approach, designed to allow a gentle coast to the Lodge with an early election. The only problem was, they’d brutally knifed the actual incumbent, and he was refusing to go quietly.  Julia Gillard tried to put out a few fires and rise Prime Ministerially above the grubbiness of Abbott’s standard attack-mode with a superficially positive “Moving forward” slogan, but she went backwards in the polls and had to change tack to what now seems, if anything, to be an approach based around improvising.

In recent days, both parties have struggled to portray the other as too risky on economics, which seems a fairly futile area of attack. For all that Howard and Costello cut away at the nation’s social fabric, they undertook economic reforms that gave us a sound basis to resist the global financial crisis. And few economists seem to agree with the Coalition’s line that Rudd made a total hash of the stimulus – while it may have gone too far and been haphazard in its implementation, there’s no denying that the emergency measures helped us glide smoothly through the crisis.

If the lack of clear narratives has made this campaign difficult enough to follow, we’ve  also had several deus ex machina – unexpected interventions from out of left field that have fundamentally, and ultimately unsatisfyingly, changed the story.

The strangest intervention has been Latham’s – who would have thought we’d spend so much time talking about a one-campaign failed leader in 2010, or that a media organisation would decide to give him journalistic accreditation? And who would have thought that another former failure, Andrew Peacock, would sashay boldly into the campaign, make one deeply insensitive comment about disability and then quietly slink back into obscurity?

Most bizarrely, who would have thought that the abandoned Rudd would not only be a major element in the campaign, but Labor’s potential saviour? Well, Rudd, obviously, but not even he could have predicted that he’d star in a medical drama. “Lazarus with a triple bypass” was only ever supposed to be a metaphor.

Things are still in a state of flux. Last week, Tony Abbott seemed to be the frontrunner, but now the PM is mounting a comeback – there was a huge run of betting on Labor today. Perhaps we all rubbished the “real Julia Gillard” concept too soon, and she is belatedly establishing herself as competent and likeable? If she pulls it off, it will be thanks to a narrative that wasn’t planned by head office or sold with clever advertising, but proven through sheer performance – backed up, finally, by significant policy detail.

But it’s far too early to predict how this increasingly fascinating campaign will end. More twists will surely happen in the third Act. There aren’t too many bitter ex-leaders left who are yet to enter the campaign, but who knows what tricks Gough Whitlam might have up his sleeve? And we’re still due an old-fashioned Bernie Banton-style Abbott gaffe, surely.

The strategies have been insipid and cynical, and the broad policy drought disturbing – the Opposition simply isn’t willing to play in its traditional areas like industrial relations and tax reform, and the Citizens’ Assembly remains a bigger dog than the Hound of the Baskervilles. But despite itself, this unpredictable election is proving compelling viewing.