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Daily Media Quotation

Safe And Steady Will Win This Race

July 8, 2006

by Peter Hartcher - Sydney Morning Herald

A trinity of football excitement is with us, an ecstatic week offering first-class performances in three codes, World Cup football, State of Origin league and Bledisloe Cup rugby. It is a week when too much footy is just not enough.

Australians so love sport that, as the Imperial Japanese Army swept south through Asia and positioned itself to attack Australia, our wartime prime minister, John Curtin, had to order the suspension of sporting events to get us to pay attention to the threat of imminent invasion.

Yes, we love excitement on the sports field. And that's where we want to keep it.

You will sometimes hear people in Australia pining for exciting political leaders. They are in a dangerously misguided minority. Political parties that are interested in success should resolutely close their ears to these urgings.

The great bulk of Australians do not want excitement in their politics.

The Australian voter is deeply risk-averse. We want government that will provide security, prosperity and efficient services, not inspiration or excitement or entertainment.

The leaders whom we reject most emphatically are the most exciting, the boldest, the riskiest - Mark Latham, Paul Keating, John Hewson, Gough Whitlam.

Two of these, Labor's Latham and the Liberals' Hewson, were so exciting that they never made it to the prime ministership. Whitlam was a visionary leader, ahead of his times in many ways, but proved to be too revolutionary for a second term.

The dashing Keating, who promised "a touch of excitement" in government, used to tell his ministers: "In this game, what's the worst that can happen to you? You'll lose your job. So why be a mouse?"

Keating was a lion, and we hated him for it. He was the most unpopular prime minister in the 30-year series of the ACNielsen poll. The only reason Keating won the 1993 election is that his opponent was Hewson, a man promising a drastic reform program that promised even more excitement than Keating.

Our greatest political successes, the most enduring of our leaders, are the ones who seem to be the most ordinary, the most reassuring, the least risky - John Howard and Bob Hawke, men who cultivated, in their own ways, the appearance of ordinariness. Indeed, Michelle Grattan once captured Howard's essence as "awesomely ordinary".

And although Howard and Hawke each proved to be important reformers in different ways, they always took care to present themselves as reassuring leaders in close communion with ordinary Australians.

Hawke ruled for nine years and Howard, so far, for 10, surpassed only by Robert Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party who led the country for a total of 18 years. Certainly, the patrician Menzies did not cultivate ordinariness, but he did present a reassuring father figure, an establishment rock in a time of communist tempest.

And he claimed to rule in the interests of the "forgotten people - the middle class", as he put it in his famous 1942 radio broadcast. This is a consistent and crucial part of the narrative of Australia's successful political leaders - they all position themselves as the champions of the broad middle mass of the population. Menzies' forgotten people are Howard's "aspirational voters", the middle Australia that Hawke embraced and that Kim Beazley has this year rediscovered.

This is the antithesis of Latham's approach. "My ideology is about insiders and outsiders, about the dispersal of power and opportunity," Latham said in explaining why he was taking money from the 67 private schools on his infamous "hit list".

"I've never been afraid to take on redistribution of money," said Latham, allowing Howard to accuse him of waging class warfare. Latham sounded like the champion not of the middle masses but of the underdog. In a country where household wealth had doubled in the previous decade and unemployment halved, middle Australia looked askance - we've been managing all right so far and we don't need this bloke to save us.

"More Whitlam than Hawke," said Howard. Too risky.

And Keating, the antique collector who lectured Australians about the recession they had to have, was so distant from ordinary Australians that his former leader, Hawke, advised him to "get to the shopping centres, go around and meet people".

Just how conservative, how risk-averse, are the Australian people?

Since 1949, the Australian electorate has voted to change national government only four times. That is, of the 23 federal elections in this era, we have voted for the status quo on 19 occasions, a consistency of 83 per cent.

And of the 44 times since Federation that we have been presented with referendums, we have voted them down 36 times. That is, in the past century we have rejected attempts to change our constitution with 82 per cent consistency.

Australian voters need a powerful reason to remove a government, to vote for change. And when we do, we are most unlikely to choose an exciting alternative.

This is something that the Labor Party needs to think about in the coming months as it weighs the future of its leader, Kim Beazley, and considers the alternatives.

Among Labor's "true believers", it is an accepted fact that the party needs to dump the conservative windbag Beazley and replace him with an inspirational leader who will energise the party and lead a triumphal uprising against the foul Howard. This group has a strong voice and considerable influence.

These people are generally inner-city Labor-activist types who follow politics from a ringside seat.

They do not, however, represent the broader Labor support base. And they certainly do not represent the middle Australia that is crucial to any successful electoral strategy, the voters, for instance, of the western Sydney seats that have migrated steadily from the Labor Party to Howard's Liberals over the past decade.

The true believers want more from their politics than prosperity, security and efficient government services. They want a Labor leader who will inspire and rouse and energise them. While most Australians find passion in their football, the true believers want it in their politics. They want a charismatic leader with verve and passion. They pine for Keating, but they will settle for Julia Gillard.

For practical purposes, it is impossible in Australia for any opposition leader to stride forth and seize power. An opposition leader needs to be well qualified and well positioned and well trusted, but he - or she - can only win power when the electorate is of a mind to remove the government.

The adage holds true - that oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them. Remember the slogan on which Howard campaigned successfully against Keating in 1996: "Enough is enough."

In the approach to next year's election, John Howard is not invincible. The greatest danger he confronts now is what Kim Beazley has called the "triple whammy" assaulting the electorate: rising interest rates, high petrol prices and an aggressive new industrial relations policy.

While Howard has not given this trifecta a title, he has acknowledged to his own party room the potency of these three issues for his Government.

These are potentially lethal for Howard because they strike directly at his core claim to power - that he is the leader who delivers better living standards.

But Howard cannot be assailed by a Labor leader who poses an even greater threat to living standards than he does. When the Australian electorate has had enough of Howard, it needs to have a low-risk, credible alternative.

When that day comes, the Australian middle masses will want to remove the Government without exposing themselves to the danger of any excitement.

So whom should Labor be offering as the unexciting but safe alternative?

Whatever Beazley's sins, he cannot be accused of being exciting, bold or daring. Although the latest polling shows him to be doing a creditable job, the Labor Party remains in a quiet funk over whether he is capable of winning next year's election.

Depending on his poll performance in the months ahead, Labor will be tempted to discard him.

It needs to think very, very carefully before dumping a man so well qualified, so tremendously unexciting.

The logical and likely successor, the Right's Kevin Rudd, also qualifies as impressively unexciting, but he lacks Beazley's long and reassuring absence of effervesence.

And as for the true believers, Labor should tell them to go watch the football.


Peter Hartcher is the Herald's political editor.

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