In February, Kevin Rudd promised that he would mess with John Howard's mind, and then grinned. The mind-messing continues into its ninth straight month, and Howard is cracking.
Witness the fiasco surrounding the new $2 billion pulp mill in Tasmania's Tamar Valley. Rudd and Labor refused to say whether they would back the pulp mill until "the science" was in. The "science" being a report that would reveal if the pulp mill would become an environmental catastrophe.
This move by Labor all but forced Environment minister Malcolm Turnbull into following through on his pledge to make sure the mill would meet "world's standard" measure on not polluting the surrounding waters and otherwise fairly pristine environment.
The science comes in, Turnbull holds off on releasing the report, enduring a monumental bollocking in the media from an orchestrated campaign by anti-mill activists, centred around Turnbull's NSW seat, that the Liberals were unable to blame on Labor.
Turnbull then announces, yesterday, that the mill will go ahead, and Howard is like a bull at a gate, unable to contain his glee, all but certain that Labor will have no choice but to oppose the mill, or to try and delay committing to backing its construction.
After all, if a Tasmanian pulp mill can throw into chaos the likelihood of Turnbull retaining his local seat at the coming election, then surely, surely, there had to be some negative fall out for Labor?
No such luck.
Howard cut loose yesterday morning, claiming Labor was playing "chicken politics" with the pulp mill issue. But Howard was in meltdown mode. He was jumpy, hyper, almost manic. He looked like someone had dropped a bad E in his morning coffee. Some media reported the below quotes as being "thundered" by Howard :
"I mean it’s playing chicken politics to just criticise a process. I mean they’ve got the decision, we’ve taken the decision, we didn’t put it off, we didn’t defer it because it was a bit difficult.
“I would say to Mr Rudd and Mr Garrett, do you support the decision or do you oppose it?
“I mean are they for it or against it? Do they agree with the mill, subject to the stringent environmental requirements, or do they oppose it? Do they want jobs for northern Tasmanians or don’t they?”
All but minutes later, Labor's captain conservationist, Peter Garrett, calmly, firmly, announced the Labor position on the pulp mill's future :
“A Rudd Labor government would not seek to overturn or amend the decision by Mr Turnbull.”Slam dunk.
The controversial pulp mill decision is now owned by the Howard government. And the media is champing to turn it into the big environmental issue of the election campaign. Another 'Save The Franklin River' adventure. They'll probably make it an enormous deal, even if most Australians aren't interested, if only so they can go and hang out in beautiful forests in quiet, calm Tasmania and laugh it up with the Greens.
Howard is well spooked by Rudd now. Veteran political commentators and Liberal Party staffers are stunned at how nothing sticks to Rudd, and how he somehow keeps managing to pass the most controversial of election issues right back to Howard to deal with.
The head messing continues. The tally of success for Rudd is long, near faultless and worthy of some pride.
Even people who don't want to see Howard lose are caught up in the entertainment of watching the King being bested, again and again, by some blow-in from the provinces.
Rudd seems largely unfazed by anything, and is relentlessly moving through a drip-feed series of policy announcements, most of which appear to be welcomed by the majority of Australians, as though he already is prime minister. He doesn't seem to be so much fighting against Howard, as flicking him away like an annoying fly that keeps buzzing back.
All of which leaves Howard scrambling for relevance and ramping up his 'I'm A Nice Guy!' routine to such levels of near-absurdity that it now appears he has been replaced by one of his own comedic impersonators.
It's great that Howard gets out in his local community, hanging at fetes, and rolling up his sleeves to spin the chocolate wheel. People seem to genuinely enjoy seeing their prime minister having fun in such non-official situations.
But more and more it feels as though we are watching videotapes sent back from five to eight years in the future, when a long gone, and somewhat forgotten ex-prime minister is taking whatever public appearance gigs he gets offered. Even if it's calling the meat tray, or spinning the wheel, with a blinding grin, at the local school fete.