Daily Media Quotation
Houdini Howard III
June 30, 2007
by Shaun Carney - The Age
The letters started arriving in mailboxes this week: "Congratulations, you are a worthy Australian on a carer's allowance or similar benefit and you deserve more, so we, the Howard Government, want to send it to you. A one-off bonus payment of several hundred dollars, no strings attached, will soon be coming your way. Yours, etc." I paraphrase but you get the general idea.
In 2001, the then federal president of the Liberal Party, Shane Stone, expressed concern in a leaked letter that the Government, then faring very badly in the polls and with only six months to go before an election, was viewed as "mean and tricky" by voters. It could not be said that this is a generally held view in 2007 — not the "mean" part, anyway. The budget income tax cuts kick in tomorrow. The cheques will soon be in the mail.
This Government hands out money in record amounts and is happy to let everyone know about it. And why not? Lump sum payments, strategically distributed, are known in the past to have kept thousands of voters in the Liberal and Nationals column when it really counted. And if you can get lucky enough to get the Labor Party to claim, as it did in the 2004 election campaign, that the payments are not real money, thus severely undermining its financial credibility — well, that's just icing on the electoral cake.
As for the Government's reputation for being "tricky", after the false claims about children being thrown overboard and the unbelievable denials of knowledge of the AWB rorts, that's something that's going to dog John Howard for the rest of his political life. Obviously, he's infuriated by questions that in any way go even remotely near suggesting a Tampa or children overboard-style political motive behind the decision to take over Aboriginal towns in the Northern Territory.
It's understandable that he's offended, but it's equally understandable that a solid segment of the electorate is reflexively suspicious of the Prime Minister when he makes a big announcement in an election year. The man is always on, always scanning his surroundings for an advantage. Which is fair enough — it's what's made him so successful, so revered by his supporters and so loathed by his detractors.
Howard has been re-elected three times and none of those election wins has come easily. In 1998 he held on with a minority of the vote. In 2001, even with his politically masterful handling of the Tampa crisis and the shock of September 11, he still managed to secure only 51 per cent of the vote after preferences. And in 2004, blessed with the flakiest man ever to lead Labor, Mark Latham, as his opponent, he nevertheless found most of the year hard going.
Of course, to the winner go the spoils and in the end it doesn't matter how much you've won by or even, to a certain extent, how you managed to get there — simply winning is enough. But as we enter the long winter parliamentary recess, it's worth re-examining some of the assumptions about the way politics work in an election year.
There's a natural tendency to use the Government's past two come-from-behind election victories as the template to make sense of the current situation, which is, the published opinion polls tell us, that the Government would get a hiding if an election were held now. The problem in doing this is that it assumes that all the main variables have remained the same.
Certainly, the Government is the same. The Prime Minister and the Treasurer are the same. The ways in which they carry out their jobs are the same. The methods by which the Prime Minister deals with political problems are the same. Progressively, stoically, assiduously, he works his way through each issue, using his authority and the budget surplus to neutralise them. Pragmatic survivalism guides his hand.
The Labor Opposition is not the same. Many — but not all — of the issues are different too. I dug through the archives this week and had a look at what I was writing in this space at the same time in the previous electoral term. It is interesting how much one tends to forget.
In June 2004, the Bush White House launched a full-scale rhetorical attack on Latham and the Labor Party over the then Opposition leader's hasty and poorly articulated plan to have Australian troops home from Iraq by Christmas of that year. George Bush, Colin Powell and Rich Armitage all lined up to monster Latham. They made it clear that the alliance with the United States would be endangered if Australian voters elected a Labor administration. Bear in mind that the occupation of Iraq was then only 14 months old and the psychic wounds caused by the Bali bombings were still raw.
At the same time, the Government had launched a saturation pre-election advertising campaign costing $120 million, a good deal of which carried the message that the Coalition was improving Medicare. Remember? Latham's political response was to talk about subjects that reside near the political margins — the need to punish neighbours who refuse to discipline their unruly children, the effect of junk food on the young and the undesirability of plastic shopping bags.
Labor crowned this awful month by recanting on its long-held opposition to the Government's proposed increase in prices for medications. For two years it had blocked the proposals in the Senate and just a few months before an election, it changed its mind and let the legislation pass, thus getting the blame for a Government policy. Worse was to come in the following weeks with Latham basically going missing for a while as the pressure of being leader started to get to him.
Is this not a substantially different scenario to the one that prevails now? Rudd seems unlikely to draw fire from Washington and while the policy detail is sometimes too thin, he knows his only chance lies in talking about the big issues. It is not his natural inclination to scurry off to the sidelines to look for a quirky talking point with which to supposedly triangulate his opponent.
Also in June 2004, the poll trends were improving for the Government at a decent clip. The Age/ACNielsen poll and Newspoll were virtually identical, with both sides about even on primaries at 42-43 per cent and Labor ahead on preferences 52-48. Those same polls right now have Labor ahead on primaries by 7-9 per cent and by 8-14 per cent after preferences.
None of this is to suggest that the Prime Minister cannot do his Houdini trick once again. But even the hardest working prime minister is likely to get only one Tampa and one Mark Latham in his lifetime.