Australian election is a farce with much at stake

It might be a hotly contested campaign in serious economic and environmental times, but Australia's federal election has never strayed far from the absurd.

In the red corner it's Labor leader and brand new prime minister, Julia Gillard – the flame-haired, childless, former lawyer and self-declared atheist. In the blue corner is coalition leader, Tony Abbott – the exercise-obsessed family man and former trainee priest.

Both leaders are far from political rookies and yet neither entered the campaign with the authority of incumbency. By her own admission, Gillard has struggled to find her feet and appear "real" on the hustings, while Abbott (who isn't called the Mad Monk for nothing) has been under 24-hour watch from his minders. The guy hasn't been able to burp without talking points from campaign headquarters.

It has been a monumentally risk-averse campaign as both sides avoided taking a policy stand for fear it might differentiate them and turn voters away.

Both parties have remained distinctly squeamish about hot-button topics like climate change and gay marriage. Neither mentioned the war in Afghanistan or indigenous affairs. And both are determined to present the paltry number of Australia's boat people as a major problem to sure up votes in marginal seats.

Indeed, it's only been in the last stages that (some) differences between the two have surfaced. Labor has a larger financial commitment to education, a continued (though deferred) desire to develop a carbon trading scheme and a pledge to roll out high-speed broadband. The coalition, for its part, seeks to stop Labor reforms in health, internet policy and school buildings, while offering a more generous paid parental leave scheme.

But who needs policy when you have a debate about debates? The past week has been consumed by a slanging match between the leaders about if, when and how they will debate each other. In a similarly post-modern twist, much of the rest of the media coverage has focused on how rubbish the coverage has been.

The campaign has been made all the more surreal by the ghost of Kevin Rudd. Much to Labor's horror, the ex-PM has dominated headlines over the past five weeks, thanks to his insistence on recontesting his seat, emergency gall bladder surgery and mystery leaks suggesting Gillard reneged on a leadership deal between the two.

To add to the weirdness, this week his 26-year-old daughter, Jessica, launched her debut novel in which an Australian PM is toppled by his female deputy – who then calls an election.

But farce and fluff aside, there is much at stake in this campaign. Despite garnering almost zero buzz, the Greens look set to gain the balance of power in the Senate. For the major players, legacies are also on the line.

Just three years ago, John Howard and the coalition were unceremoniously booted out of government after 11-and-a-half years of domination. A coalition win would take the sting out of Howard's humiliating defeat and reinstall the Liberals as the "natural ruling party" of Australia. For Rudd, an Abbott victory would also mean a much more comfortable and forgiving place in history.

For Labor, the stakes are higher again. Just two months ago, Rudd was sacked because party insiders became convinced he would lose the election. Having gone through the trauma of a hastily cobbled-together coup – and then spending the last nine weeks justifying it – Labor will have an emu-sized egg on its face if it falls short on Saturday.

Gillard, long seen as the woman most likely in Australian politics, would not only go down as its first female PM but one of its biggest anticlimaxes.

With only 24 hours before Australians head to the polls, the opinion surveys, betting markets and a psychic crocodile give the election (just) to Labor. But the coalition is finishing strong and no one is really game to call it either way.

In this campaign about nothing, anything goes.

Judith Ireland, an Australian journalist and researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.