Shakespearean switcheroo at the hustings?


Germaine Greer didn’t watch John Howard and Mark Latham worm-wrangling on Sunday night. Greer at the time was explaining other ways in which the worm can turn, in a lecture on Shakespeare and sexual identity at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Oxford Street on Saturday night has nothing on Shakespeare when it comes to gender bending, was the takeout for her 400-strong Canberra audience. Drag was, of course, a mainstay of Elizabethan theatre where male actors frocked up to play the female roles. Shakespeare often pushed that gender envelope, hard. Twelfth Night saw, for example, a male actor play the female character ‘Viola’, who spends most of the play in drag disguised as the handsome young man ‘Cesario’, whose heart pines for his/her master ‘Duke Orsino’ … even as her/his master’s object of desire ‘Olivia’ falls in love with ‘Cesario(Viola)’.

Confused? So are many voters observing the 2004 federal election.

Is this Australia’s first drag election? That’s the question swimming up through the mental murk of voters watching the Liberals trump Labor on Medicare spending, while Labor runs hard on a huge tax cut package aimed at middle (and high) income earners. Has someone done a Shakespearian switcheroo with Howard in drag as a Labor man and Latham in drag as a Lib?

Howard overwhelming Labor’s Medicare election bid by more than a billion dollars “ and on the same day “ was audacious. It doesn’t give the government ownership of health as an issue, but it continues Health Minister Tony Abbott’s steady erosion of Labor’s historical advantage in the area. That’s damaging for Labor given health’s number one priority as a voter concern.

Latham’s tax package is of another order altogether. The initial reception given the $11 billion “ yes, ELEVEN BILLION DOLLARS “ package was rapturous. It got blanket coverage and massive plaudits from journalists and editors who, as middle and high income earners themselves, are prime beneficiaries. There was rapturous envy, too, inside the Libs’ campaign where Latham was perceived to have wedged the government “ from the right. The government struggled to smother the package over the following 48 hours, given it could easily have been a coalition initiative.

Inside Labor there was some well-contained but palpable angst about the shape of the package. Oops, was that nearly 200,000 impoverished sole parents “ mostly women “ who lost out so Labor could give more money to the middle class and the rich?

And that’s before you get to the underlying concerns of many that Latham’s big tax gambit obscures what should really be the central thrust of the campaign: health and education services.

How the Latham package would see the poorest Australians slugged to help provide more benefits for the middle class and the rich eventually emerged, patchily, in media commentary over ensuing days. It is so un-Labor. Many loyal supporters are outraged. What was West Australian Labor MP Jann McFarlane supposed to say when questioned on Perth radio by one single parent about it? ‘We’ll fix it later’ was about the only place McFarlane could go.

Labor frontbenchers’ response that in net terms these 200,000 single parents would actually be better off after other Labor initiatives are taken into account is lame. You’re not thinking about other program benefits when counting up twenty cent pieces to go and buy some bread and milk for the kids. The Liberals’ private envy about this aspect of the package tells the story: ‘We’ve wanted to do this for years’, one told me this week of the crunch on single parents, ‘but we thought we’d be crucified if we tried.’

According to this week’s Newspoll, Labor has got zero bang for its $11 billion tax bucks: the two party preferred vote is stuck at 50/50, the same as before the package’s release. And this is the saddest part of the story: imagine what an $11 billion spending package on health and education services could have done for Australia, not to mention for the Labor vote in this campaign.

The Labor leader is jocularly referred to by some insiders as ‘Mark Thatcher’. If Shakespeare had made a play out of the 2004 campaign, he probably would’ve gone all the way and called him ‘Margaret’.

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