The Coalition's launch


Sorry, I dozed off there for a while.

I did wake up oh so briefly last weekend during Mark Latham’s scrappy exchange with Nine’s Laurie Oakes and a pretty ridiculous and unedifying performance at a press conference later that day.

Thank God the Grand Final was on this weekend, I was in danger of not waking up until polling day.

But here we are at the Liberal and National Party shindig and despite the best wishes of the assembled party faithful, a very schmick-looking set, and some extremely funny lines from Peter Costello (lines he stole from Seven’s Mark Riley earlier that morning) it was looking like the launch was going to be a very expensive fizzer.

There were two main reasons for this. One was Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson. What a liability he is! Very nice chap to be sure, but utterly boring and even more incapable of any real serious thought. As Anderson walked toward the stage, grinning like Cheshire cat and looking like someone who couldn’t believe his luck that there were so many people pleased to see him, a number of Libs looked decidedly unimpressed with proceedings. Mandy Vanstone could barely bring herself to clap her amiable colleague, let alone crack a smile. Any momentum built up by a short, punchy and on the whole pretty amusing speech by Costello, was lost by Anderson in less than a minute.

The second reason was the venue itself. Brisbane City Hall is a beautiful old building in the centre of town, but it’s cavernous within, and it can be very difficult to create atmosphere because of the towering ceilings and galleries in the round.

I was in danger of nodding off again but thankfully the PM and a beaming Jeanette, who absolutely loves these events with the dutifully assembled, hit the stage. Howard began to wind himself up like a giant jack-in the-box, and what a bang he delivered.

Union bashing is an age-old tactic but it works (some Labor MPs do it too). Given the deregulation of the workforce and growing numbers of independent contractors in the workplace, Howard’s promise to legislate to deter unions and industrial tribunals from regulating that sector will will be very popular. Not with unions of course, but then most union members wouldn’t vote for him anyway.

What a clever, clever move introducing the technical colleges. But the real icing on the cake is the undertaking to extend the Youth Allowance for apprentices, to give them level pegging with uni students. The PM wants this kind of training to be as valued and valuable as studying for a university degree. Not only is he giving apprentices a new tool box, he’s wrapping it up in their self-esteem as well. The Opposition’s Anthony Albanese must be tearing his hair out. He’s been banging on about the issue for years now, and here’s John Howard moving in and taking over an area that’s normally Labor turf. And Labor’s Michelle O’Byrne in Bass – already frightened witless about losing her extremely marginal seat – must be gloomy about her prospects, as one of the colleges has been mooted for northern Tasmania.

As for the rest; well, I reckon it was just a good old bit of old fashioned pork barrelling.

The billion dollar bulls-eye is the childcare rebate. The PM’s 30 percent tax rebate for out-of pocket childcare expenses is a massive bribe that will no doubt go down a treat with parents. They’ll snap it up – assuming, of course, they can actually get a place for their kid in a childcare centre, whether that’s private or government funded. Duh! Gee, they might have just forgotten that part “ if you can’t get a place, you can’t have a rebate.

The money just kept pouring out. It felt like winning big on the pokies. Assembled journos were left slack-jawed, as Howard rolled out the goodies and they desperately tried to add up their sums.

This was a carefully targeted launch and the measures announced could prove to be a stroke of genius by Liberal strategists. Even if they are spending like the proverbial drunken sailors that Crean and Latham keep whingeing about.

The PM is trying to detract from Labor’s education and health measures by promisining general practitioners more dosh for out of hours work, and by giving a billion dollars to under resourced schools to spend as the school communities see fit. I’m absolutely positive that giving the money directly to schools and by-passing state governments will prove to be extremely popular with the punters – especially in New South Wales, where electoral animosity toward Premier Bob Carr is rampant. Yet the logistics of implementing the policy can only shape up as a nightmare.

Surprisingly, other than the monies targeting dementia, there was nothing for the growing aged care sector. The government presumably believes the $2 billion or so they announced earlier in the year would suffice. Considering that 41% of voters were over 50 at the last poll one would think there are probably a few votes up for grabs. More than a few in fact. We have massive problems in the aged care sector which promise to get worse in the not so distant future. Research is telling us it’s an issue weighing heavily on the minds of the oldest of our baby boomers who are about to hit the the pensioner system. It’s been a sleeper during the campaign, one I think both camps have completely underestimated. Howard may regret not making a bigger pitch for the grey-and-greying vote, as Labor is tipped to have some measures in the works to help simplify aged care and will announce them in a day or two.

Back to the podium. All the leaders were on stage with their wives, and the clean cut Howard offspring also made their entrance, so they too could feel the love at City Hall. Bossy Jeanette manoeuvred her husband round the stage like a good wife and adviser should, all the while bestowing a beneficent and all knowing smile.

Will this be enough to wheel the PM back into power?

Howard positively bounced out of the auditorium and will be raring to go this week. What makes the PM’s job easier is his concepts are pretty simple “ you vote for me, I’ll give you more money and more choices. On the flipside, some of Labor’s policies have been so confusing and complicated that Latham is struggling to get his core messages through to the electorate.

Latham came haring out of the blocks after the not-so great-debate, full of beans. While the big fella’s had a good couple of good weeks, coming across confident and cheeky, he’ll need to come up with some juicy extras in his own launch on Wednesday.

Howard’s launch performance was undoubtedly his best thus far. On his feet for an hour or so, the PM cranked up the spending machine, and nailed it well and truly. Although the government’s on a reckless spending spree, I’m not sure it will matter to many voters. That’s because of the rusted-on perception that Coalition governments are good at looking after the economy, and that this one in particular has a strong fiscal record.

Howard’s had a slow start, but according to those pesky polls is still popular, despite having been pinged for fibbing his socks off. Mind you, the polls have been bouncing around so much I suspect they’re really no longer reliable.

This is probably Howard’s last roll of the dice. For the majority of voters, in the end and despite their best intentions, it will all come back to their hip pocket, and whether or not they’re prepared to be bought.

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