Time to Point the Bone?


John Howard’s bones are probably pretty good for his age. No doubt, he has his daily walk and his genes to thank for that, but like every 66-year-old his skeletal structure is telling him all sorts of things these days. Over time, we all become increasingly aware of our creaking joints but the Prime Minister appears to be more in tune with his, than most. He told us last week that he thought community views had changed about nuclear power, for instance, because he could ‘feel it in his bones.’



His bones are telling him we want a fair-dinkum debate about this issue, and he’s probably right. It’s clear that, while some still carry a Cold War paranoia about the nuclear industry, many, particularly younger people, think global warming is a far greater problem and we all need to look to whatever solutions there might be to save us from the fossil fuel frying pan. If nuclear is at least part of the answer, then let’s have a serious look at it.

But it’s easy to be cynical about the timing of this call for debate. Think back to when this issue was raised. John Howard was overseas on a trip that produced little of any substance other than proving, once again, that he is one of the few friends George W Bush still has. Back home, Peter Costello was all over the country selling the Federal Budget and sharing the headlines with rising petrol prices. John Howard is smart – he sniffed the wind and found an issue that could turn the headlines and dominate the news cycle.

And it did. But it won’t for long.

And this, more than anything else, is an example of just how times have changed. Has John Howard begun to lose his legendary political antennae? The PM’s bones tell him one story; the polls are starting to tell another.

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

Despite the early musings of some of the more supportive commentators, the nuclear issue is not going to be an election-winning political crusade like the GST. And the next election will not be fought on nuclear energy  – Kim Beazley made sure of that last weekend at the NSW ALP State Conference.

While John Howard listened to his bones, Labor’s Leader seems to have finally located his own political spine. Having prevaricated on Australian Workplace Agreements since the last election, Beazley has now truly set the battleground for the next poll by declaring them to be ‘the poison tip’ of the Government’s Industrial Relations arrow. He had little choice, really, if he was going to make political mileage out of IR. It would have been hard to campaign effectively against the WorkChoices legislation and continue to support AWAs.

But having drawn the line, he has now opened himself up to a predictable Government attack, like the one over the 2001 ‘rollback’ promise on the GST, and to accusations that he is a captive of the union movement  – which of course he is, to some extent. He’ll put some powerful business interests offside, too.

Having located his own backbone, Beazley’s now decided to take advantage of the fears and insecurities that have begun to surface about WorkChoices. Sure, it’s politically opportunistic populism, but he wouldn’t be the first to take that road, would he?

Even Howard has recognised that there is some ‘unease’ in the community over how the IR changes have been ‘depicted.’ What does that mean? In short, it means the Government’s message isn’t getting through and the labour movement’s is.

How times have changed. Suddenly, to mix a colloquialism, the fear campaign’s on the other foot. It’s okay, the PM says, to run a fear campaign on interest rates or border control, but it’s not okay to run one about nuclear reactors or Industrial Relations.

Perhaps the voters are becoming a little cynical about all this?

Just watch the nuclear issue drop out of the headlines once it becomes clear how worried most people are about the prospect of a reactor in their own neighbourhood. Sure, nobody wants a coal-powered electricity station – or a wind farm, for that matter – in their own back yard either, but at least Chernobyl doesn’t automatically come to mind when someone thinks about these two alternatives. And after all, this is the Government that that scotched the construction of two wind farms in marginal Coalition electorates in one case, all it took was a parrot.

IR, on the other hand, will be there right until to the next poll. The ACTU’s emotional advertisements are just the start. So far, the Government’s response has been to label it a ‘scare campaign.’ But it’s bound to get a lot scarier yet. By the time the election comes around in 2007, the campaign on Industrial Relations will resemble a slasher movie. (It may be just as far form the truth too but this is politics, after all.)

There are quite a few in the Coalition who are a bit frightened at the prospect, already. Backbenchers, and even a few influential frontbenchers, are also starting to note a certain unease in the electorate IR is starting to bite, interest rates have gone up, petrol prices keep rising and the Defence Department bungles just keep coming.

As one in the Government’s ranks said to me the other day: ‘it hasn’t been a good few months for us has it?’ And there are many more who would rather be concentrating on turning voters’ ‘unease’ around, than having a debate about nuclear energy.

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.