When the ball was bounced last Sunday, Howard’s first campaign task was to get the focus back on economic management. He seems to have been reasonably successful so far, forcing Latham to give assurances about his economic credentials and prompting a stumble from his opponent over the tax and levy distinction.
Historically, Latham faces an uphill battle to secure what would be only the fifth change of national government in Australia in the past half century. Australians have a strong ‘better the devil you know’ bias, and bad economic performance seems to be the one ‘devil’ we find completely unacceptable.
Government defeats in 1975 and 1983 followed sudden adverse changes in the nation’s economic fortunes. In 1993, Keating was deeply on the nose because of 17% interest rates and ‘the recession we had to have’ but Hewson convinced the voters that he was not up to the job of being PM. When the Liberals went back to a ‘safe’ John Howard for the 1996 election, the voters deserted Keating with a vengenance.
Nevertheless, all governments are engaged in an ultimately futile battle to stem the ebbing tide of voter sentiment. All but two elections (93, 01) in the last 35 years have resulted in a two party preferred swing against the government.
Despite this generally relentless decline in perceptions of the incumbent, the electorate is also wary of putting relative unknowns or outsiders in the Lodge. Again, Hewson is the prime example in recent history.
So, Howard will keep pushing the government’s economic credentials and back it by fostering doubts about Latham. The government’s fervent hope is that Latham will lose the plot in the pressure cooker atmosphere of the election and, if he does, they will swoop like hawks on a wounded prey.
Despite all the talk from pollsters and pundits about voter volatility and the growing legions of ‘undecideds’, most people rarely, if ever, change their vote. My parents believed, still do, that the worst Labor government is better than the best Liberal government. You can campaign to people like this as much as you like, nothing will change.
Clinton’s chief campaigner famously said that ‘to win you have to hunt where the ducks are’. In Australia, the biggest clusters of ducks are to be found in the outer metropolitan “ mortgage belt – electorates that ring our major cities.
According to the ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, people with mortgages, small children and all the pressures that go with it are the most likely to change the voting habits they inherited from their parents or adopted as young adults.
Like most Australians, these people are not big on detailed political analysis. Their question is whether they should stick with this lot or risk it with the alternative? When it comes to putting a number in a square, this is what it boils down to.
Out there, as the campaign gathers momentum, people who might change their vote are starting to ask themselves whether Howard has been around too long and whether Latham is the right guy to takeover leadership of the country.
The ‘children overboard’ scandal has taken some more lustre off Howard “ as the government’s chief spokesperson – and made it harder for him to keep the debate on the economy.
Nevertheless, Latham sounds best to the electorate when he’s talking about substantive, specific policies rather than harping on John Howard’s faults and failings.
Latham is not yet getting out a clean, crisp argument about why people should change horses and why they should do it now. This ‘message’ may come when he launches his tax and family package, tipped to happen next week.
Meanwhile, Howard will keep telling the potential swingers that things are going well and they’d be mad to risk a change.
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