Let the change agent off the leash


John Howard is showing in this election campaign that he will do ‘Whatever it Takes’ – to borrow from former Labor minister Graham Richardson – to keep the coalition in office.

The scare tactics he used to open the official campaign last week were baseless, but effective, judging by the weekend polls that followed. In an electorate where so many have gorged on inflated real estate, sauced with cheap money, the threat of cheap money is particularly potent.

In his 1994 book of the above name, Graham Richardson praised Howard as a tough and effective parliamentary performer (as opposed to Andrew Peacock, who ‘was smooth. Nothing else, just smooth’) but said he was a poor performer on radio and television. Nothing has changed much. Ten years ago, Richardson commented: ‘Australia just wouldn’t, and still doesn’t, warm to him.’ Nothing much has changed in that direction, either.

Howard has a big margin as preferred prime minister, but that figure is determined by the alternatives. The Coalition has won three elections despite campaigns led by John Howard. In 1996, according to Newspoll, the Coalition’s primary voting support fell from 50 per cent to 47 per cent in the six weeks before polling day. Labor (the Keating government) support fell by 1.3 points. In 1998 (the GST election), Coalition support fell from 44 per cent to 39.5 per cent in the same pre-election timespan. And in 2001, despite Tampa, the primary vote for the Coalition fell from 50 per cent to 43.1 per cent.

The record thus provides one good reason for a ‘boots-and-all’ start to the campaign. Howard’s own political future rests on his utility to the Liberal Party, and starts with winning this election. He wants to show Peter Costello and his supporters (including rodent fancier George Brandis) that his decision to stay on as leader was the right one. He would dearly love to break Bob Hawke’s record as second longest-serving prime minister after Robert Menzies, and he would revel in a couple of years with a working majority in both houses of the parliament. All are possibilities.

Howard and his team have also worked on the theory that a long campaign would put greater pressure on Mark Latham, and they wanted to make that point from day one. They may be right. Latham’s personal performances have been uninspiring, to say the least. There has been no attack-dog edge to the Labor campaign; no ring of confidence; no impact from the buzz-words.

Of course the medical profession will favour the Coalition’s Medicare policy: it’s an unfettered pay rise. Labor’s policy does not pretend to solve the doctor shortage; it’s about bulk-billing so that poor people can get treatment without having to pay upfront. Why isn’t Labor saying that rather than trying to appeal to all sides?

And of course it’s nonsense to say that interest rates are always higher under Labor. But do you convince the punters by signing a gimmick-size ‘guarantee’, or setting out the facts?

There are heavyweights in Labor ranks nervous about ‘letting Latham off the leash’. They seem to forget why he is there. He is – politically speaking – young, original, innovative, a change agent. But he is not acting like one.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.