It was always going to come down to this.
Both campaigns know it. All next week, in the last desperate days of this lineball campaign, there will be just one issue – Mark Latham.
The only thing that might stop Latham winning next Saturday is that people don’t believe they know him well enough.
He’s too new. He may be erratic. Let’s stay with safe old Johnny, the swingers think, and then we’ll have a longer look at Latham, and if he’s OK we’ll pop him in next time around.
Howard will go before the next election, probably before Christams 2005. He is pushing it to the limit this time. There’s already a general perception that he’s hung on for a year or so too long. Next election he would be 68 and would have no chance of winning. His party wouldn’t let that happen.
Costello will take over and he will inherit a government that is on its last legs. Latham would beat Costello in a canter next time – or so most people seem to think. By that time both Latham and his largely unknown front bench will be ready to govern.
In rugby league, they say you have to lose a grand final before you can win one. The punters seem to think it won’t do Latham any harm to lose this one.
Nevertheless, there’s a general expectation that Latham is headed for the Lodge, either now or in 2007. That’s a measure of how far he has come in the last nine months, and particularly in the last six weeks, since he out-manoeuvred Howard on the Free Trade Agreement.
People have had a look at Latham and they like what they see. He’s young, confident, articulate, passionate and happy to have a go. There’s just that doubt about his experience. It always comes back to that.
Also working against Latham is the perception that there’s no need to rush to put him in the Lodge. The economy is going OK, Howard’s outlived his welcome but he won’t upset the applecart.
If we elect Howard, we’ll probably get Costello, but so what? If we don’t like him we can get rid of him soon enough.
On the other hand, if we give the keys to Latham now he might make a lot of mistakes and send the economy into the gutter. People hate economic upheaval more than anything else.
That’s why the Coalition’s campaign is all about Latham’s inexperience. Howard wants to scare you into making Latham wait.
On the other side of the tracks, Latham knows he has to engender a strong enough sense of urgency in enough voters to tip him over the line.
That’s why his launch was littered with messages like ‘I’m ready to lead, and he’s ready to leave’ and ‘Australia needs a change of government now’.
Both sides also know that while many swingers will say they vote on what’s best for the country, in reality many of them can still be bribed with the old fistful of dollars that worked so well for Fraser and Howard way back in 1977.
Howard has let Latham run the agenda. Throughout this campaign he has been matching Latham’s announcements, hoping to make sure that people are confused and don’t start thinking they will be a lot better off under a Latham Government.
To counter this ‘match and despatch’ strategy, Latham needs one big enticement that cuts through the dross, and gives enough weary voters a strong reason to want to put him in the Lodge now rather than later.
Latham hopes Medicare Gold will be the breakthrough he needs. He won’t have to wait long to find out whether it is or not.
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