There is something so wonderfully bizarre about the current Australian Federal election campaign that it has become political theatre that would, if scripted, risk being laughed of the air were it not presented with the right comedic satirical tone.
On one side we have the Ranga, Australia's first female PM calling an election just three weeks after her sudden elevation. Her make-up glossed face (any form of airbrushing or photoshopping has been denied) stares at us from the covers of glossy women's magazines as she proclaims that we will now see the real here.
On the other side we have the budgie smuggler or Marathon Man, the third Liberal Party leader in two years, who came to his role as a consequence of a Party coup d'état over disputes on climate change. A former Rhodes Scholar who attended Oxford, Mr Abbott is happy to be photographed as he comes out of the surf naked except for his budgie smugglers or to chat lycra clad to reporters as they jog panting along side his bike.
Joining Ms Gillard in her corner is the Silver Bodgie (or is it now Budgie?) former PM Hawke. A famed larrikin, Mr Hawke first came to fame for breaking a sculling (fast drinking) record while also on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. What is it about Rhodes Scholars? Or is it Oxford?
Even as he provided support, the media was featuring Hawke the Movie, along with the release of the latest version of his biography written by his now wife. As the story of their steamy earlier affair rolled across the TV to a transfixed audience, a very miffed former PM Paul Keating made it clear that he was not going to accept what he saw as rewriting of history. Mr Keating, also known variously as yes/no, the Teflon man and the Undertaker (among others), took the not unreasonable position that as Treasurer under Mr Hawk he had played an important role, and had indeed held the Government together, during Mr Hawke's depression
Also now joining Ms Gillard in her corner is her predecessor, deposed head Kevin Rudd. After staying quietly at home for a while, Mr Rudd's first day of campaigning in his own electorate took the media spot light away from everyone else; the multitudinous media focused on every element of his almost prime ministerial approach. Then the head was suddenly taken to hospital to have his gall bladder removed. You can imagine the cartoons.
Meantime, the budgie smuggler had acquired some unlikely allies. At times, and especially in NSW, the deeply tribal world of the ALP factions generates a deeply visceral combat whose vendettas would seem quite at home in the mafia or the Melbourne underworld. Leak and counter leak apparently intended to discredit ether the Head or Ranga provided copious copy.
Former Labor Leader Latham did not help by adding a further degree of vitriol about Mr Rudd's alleged role in leaks and his various weaknesses.
Clearly, this could not go on. In going forward, Ranga decided to go back to her real self, to show the true Julia. This confused the budgie smuggler who thought that he had been seeing the true Julia. In desperation, Ranga picked up the phone and called the Head. With his gall now removed, the Head said that he would come to the rescue to try to preserve his legacy. I will campaign with you, he promised.
Time for the budgie smuggler to call in his reinforcements, in this case his own Head, former PM John Howard. After offering his old Head fulsome praise, the budgie smuggler received benediction. Perhaps relishing the chance for revenge on the other Headmaster who had defeated him, old school rivalries die hard, Mr Howard launched a swinging attack on the Ranga.
Mind you, the budgie smuggler did not have things all his own way. Former Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser, also known as Pantless in Memphis, came out swinging against Mr Abbott.
Sometimes our ex and future PMs do not have a lot of luck. Having a drink with a women at the bar while visiting Memphis, Mr Fraser's drink was spiked. He was found wandering dazed in the hotel lobby minus his pants. Since Mr Fraser is a very tall man, this must have been a sight. For his part, Headmaster to be Rudd's visit to a New York strip club where he was allegedly warned against inappropriate behaviour became embarrassingly public. Mind you, this actually did him no harm at with many Australians; he was greeted with thumbs up signs after it became public!
Ex PM Fraser's attacks on the budgie smuggler will probably not have much impact. His long track record on human rights and on refugees is counter to the current Australian centrist position.
In all this, both Ranga and budgie smuggler are suffering from the same problems.
Having reviewed the household budget and inspected the national piggy bank, they have put the hammer aside, leaving the piggy bank more or less intact. This makes it hard to promise really new things.
Worse, they are suddenly facing new and dangerous enemies, a critical media on one side, a critical public on the other. If that wasn't bad enough, the new focus of sometimes satirical interest lies not in policy or ability, but in the way they (the politicians and party machines) are actually trying to work things in PR or campaign terms.
The value of your short grabs designed to get on the TV news loses a fair bit of impact when you grabs are identified, analysed and compared not for the actual message you are trying to get across, but for how good your grab is. In this environment, once your grab makes time relevant TV, it then gets reviewed and analysed. The same thing applies to ads. The practical effect is to increase awareness that the Emperor has no clothes! But who is the most naked?
Watching all this from the sidelines are the Green Desperados and the Three Amigos.
The Green Desperados know that they are likely to get the balance of power in the Senate, but can they get their first lower house seats? To do this, they really need Ranga and budgie smuggler to continue to focus on each other, to largely ignore the Desperado challenge. This is likely to happen. As is usual in most games, winning the immediate game is the primary point, and this involves focus and trade-offs. Ranga must marshal her resources against budgie smuggler, and vice versa.
The Three Amigos are a little different. All three are ex National Party coming from areas with strong regional traditions. All three have established huge margins in their seats, making them almost impregnable. Two of the three are from the New England independents, the only independent movement in Australia that has been able to establish a properly resourced machine. One of the three has had direct experience as a state member in a situation where an independent grouping holds the balance of power. As non-marginal electorates, none of their electorates have received any of the pork cut for this year's marginal seats.
The Amigos are watching because the polls now suggest that one possible outcome is that they, or they in combination with the Desperados, may control the balance of power in the House of Representatives. That would change things.