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Prosperity And Growth: Herald-Sun Election Editorial

This is the election editorial from Melbourne’s Herald-Sun newspaper.

The Herald-Sun is a News Limited publication.

Editorial from the Herald-Sun.

Prosperity And Growth

Finally, the contest – between a man we barely know and a man we know too well – is drawing to a close.

Our relative ignorance of Labor leader Kevin Rudd has been fashioned by party strategists into promise and possibility – he’s shiny and new without any unfortunate past, save for a misguided night in a New York strip club.

John Howard, on the other hand, is mired in history. Opponents point to more than 11 years of political deceit and intransigence – children overboard, WorkChoices, GST promises abandoned, climate change inaction – rather than the considerable achievements of that time: high growth, low unemployment, relatively low interest rates, tax reform, a more flexible workplace.

So much for the perceived benefits of incumbency.

Kevin Rudd has hardly put a foot wrong since winning the Labor leadership almost a year ago. Mr Howard has appeared to stumble at almost every turn.

The rise of Mr Rudd has been extraordinary. Much has been made of his me-tooism: policies more reflective of broad Coalition principles than long-held Labor beliefs. Written off early by senior Liberal strategists as a policy wonk who would be rejected by Australians, he’s instead been embraced as a younger version of the incumbent: John Howard without the baggage and the bad bits.

Clearly the one-time diplomat has great skills and intelligence, but there’s a suspicion that in keeping with his former life he’s simply been telling us what he thinks we want to hear.

There is little doubt Mr Rudd has won the election campaign and, for that matter, taken most of the political points throughout the year. His policy of confronting failures and misdemeanours – that strip club visit, his wife’s errant industrial practices, misguided meetings with Brian Burke – with a simple apology has disarmed the electorate and thrown his political opponents off balance.

It’s in stark contrast to Mr Howard’s long-standing stoicism in the face of political mis-steps and misjudgments.

That said, the campaign has been little more than an exercise in political imagery. There has been only one meaningful debate as leaders criss-crossed the country seeking political advantage on the nightly news. Should we reward Mr Rudd for six weeks of political theatre rather than Mr Howard’s 11 years of mostly sound government?

If the Coalition loses the election John Howard will have much on which to ruminate – and regret – in Opposition. That’s assuming, of course, he can hold his seat of Bennelong, where former ABC journalist Maxine McKew threatens to make him the first Prime Minister since Stanley Bruce to lose his seat at a poll.

While Mr Howard’s achievements in office over more than a decade are many, his judgment has appeared to fail him over the past 12 months.

It is clear now that he should have handed the leadership to Peter Costello. Succession planning is a requirement of any leader, whether in private enterprise or government. With his decision to doggedly hang on, he has robbed the Coalition of the opportunity for renewal and, quite possibly, Mr Costello of any chance of ever leading this nation.

As things stand, voters are now being asked to re-elect John Howard even though he’s vowed to relinquish leadership mid-term to his Treasurer.

The ALP has made much of this, but the prospect has never troubled us, perhaps because the mid-term handover, for whatever reason, has now become a fact of modern political life: Labor premiers Brumby for Bracks, Iemma for Carr, Bligh for Beattie, Carpenter for Gallop, Lennon for Bacon.

Funny, we never heard the ALP decry those changes of leadership, just as we don’t hear them express concern over the possibility of having Left-leaning governments at every significant level throughout the nation after Saturday night.

We feel compelled to say, however, that if Mr Howard does win a fifth term – and his seat – he should go earlier rather than later. In fact, we believe Mr Costello should become Prime Minister within the first year of a new government.

Mr Howard has misjudged the Rudd ascendancy, underestimating the former diplomat’s appeal almost from the day Mr Rudd was elected Labor leader in December last year.

Whether this was out of hubris or complacency is unclear, but it allowed the new Labor man to get early traction.

The Prime Minister also misjudged the mood of the electorate in his fourth term.

He’s not alone in this. Jeff Kennett, who had done wonders for the Victorian economy in his first two terms as Victorian Premier, missed the same shift in values and as a result lost power in 1999.

There’s a sense among many Australians that they’ve been little more than factors of production under the Howard-Costello administration and they’re tired of it.

So when Mr Rudd talks of work-life balance, education revolutions, climate change and social equity he finds a receptive audience.

Mr Howard has been playing catch-up in recent months on these and other issues he’s pretty much ignored over more than a decade. There’s a sense that he, too, has been ticking boxes rather than enunciating firmly held beliefs.

He and his government misread Australians on the environment, nuclear energy and the workplace, appeared shifty on the Iraqi wheat scandal and continually at war over the leadership. Could a fifth term Howard Government make as many mistakes? Surely not.

The risks attached to a vote for Kevin Rudd spring mostly from a cloying sense that he and his party have been saying and doing whatever it takes to win this election.

Even with his campaign launch last week there was a feeling that Mr Rudd’s message – barely $2 billion worth of expenditure promises and most of them in the area of education – had been crafted out of perceived political gain rather than belief.

Worse, it appeared to have been adapted in the 48 hours since Mr Howard had presented his $9 billion worth of promises. Clearly Mr Rudd was attempting to position himself ahead of Mr Howard, a true fiscal conservative, as an even greater fiscal conservative. Ditto his tax policy and a few more besides.

In contrast to his opponent, Mr Rudd and his team have run a disciplined and focused campaign. The ALP leader has mostly stayed on message and has hammered recurring themes: an education revolution, a health overhaul, fiscal conservatism, better broadband, a fairer workplace and more focus on climate change and global warming. Who’s going to argue with that?

Of course, there’s been precious little detail. In many ways the ALP’s campaign performance has been a triumph of style over substance.

Many voters will be wondering if what they’ve heard from Mr Rudd over the past six weeks is actually what they’ll get post-election. Then there’s the experience factor: of the likely Rudd front bench, only a couple of the shadow ministry have experienced government. Do they have the skills to run a nation and an economy in an increasingly volatile world?

Of course, any party seeking to win government after almost 12 years of Opposition would face this test.

The Howard Cabinet also came to power after an extended period of Opposition and managed well.

The area of greatest risk – and policy difference – arises from Labor’s entrenched union links and its professed desire to return to collective bargaining. Put simply, Australia has come too far as a nation – and enjoyed too many successes as a result of a more mature approach to industrial relations – to return to the bad old days of adversarial and combative workplaces.

Certainly, in an era of spiralling inflation, the country needs maximum flexibility in its wages policy.

If Australia does choose Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party tomorrow night, the world will not fall apart.

In fact, such an outcome might bring with it fresh ideas, fresh approaches and a new sense of purpose.

But there are too many risks and too many unknowns for us to endorse the Rudd team at this election. And this is a direct result of the way he and his party have campaigned over the past six weeks.

At the outset, we cautioned the Labor leader that voters would need to have a much better idea of what he stood for and how a Rudd Government would impact on their lives if they were to earn the votes of Australians and, by extension, our endorsement.

This was especially so given the prosperity Mr Howard and Mr Costello have delivered. If voters really are to turf them out, they need to know a great deal more about those who would replace them and, moreover, be convinced they’ll deliver even better outcomes.

Instead Mr Rudd chose a small target strategy. As a result, frankly, we don’t know much more about him or how he would govern than we did 40 days ago when the Prime Minister visited Government House in Canberra.

This is because Mr Rudd has mounted a campaign built more on rhetoric and slogans than compelling policy.

It amounts to a plan to get elected rather than a vision for an alternative Australia. Labor has drawn largely on voter fatigue. It is banking on voters making an emotional decision, not an intellectual one.

Australians don’t like to eject governments; voters have done it only four times in the past 58 years. In each case there’s been a very real sense that those administrations – McMahon in ’72, Whitlam in ’75, Fraser in ’83 and Keating in ’96 – had run their race; worse, that a continuation of their policies would actually do damage to the nation.

We don’t get that sense about the Howard Government. True, its fourth term has not been its best. In fact, it’s been lacklustre compared with previous administrations.

But it hasn’t been incompetent and, save for some questionable behaviour on the Iraqi wheat scandal, it has not been corrupt. It continues to deliver prosperity for Australians and we expect it would do so in the future.

On that basis the Herald Sun believes the Coalition deserves another term in office. In saying so, we put performance ahead of potential, achievement ahead of promise, certainty ahead of uncertainty. Mr Rudd has not made a compelling case for change.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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