Running on Empty


The night of the 2004 Federal poll my husband and I attended a neighbourhood election party. We live in a suburb on the lower North Shore of Sydney. We used to be in John Howard’s electorate but, by 2004, the electoral boundaries had changed and the party guests were voting either for or against Joe Hockey.

The guests — and I include myself in this — were people who have become rather scathingly described as ‘doctor’s wives’. We’re a worry to the large-L Liberals because we tend to be bleeding heart small-l liberals. Highly educated and economically comfortable, we tend to vote Left of Centre and are particularly energised by things that leave most Australian voters cold: reconciliation and Indigenous affairs, refugees, detention camps and children overboard.

Like most groups of human beings, however, we are a strange and inconsistent bunch. The ‘doctor’s wives’ at that party, some of whom were actually either married to doctors or doctors themselves, had seen their incomes improve sharply in the eight years of Howard’s leadership and were benefiting directly from his management of the economy. Yet, they were united in the hope that John Howard would lose the election or, at least, experience a sharp and salutary swing against him.

The conventional wisdom prior to the election, at least in the circles I mixed in and certainly in the media, was that the result was going to be close.

As we all know, conventional wisdom was dead wrong and John Howard was returned comfortably. Indeed, it was only an hour or two into the party that ABC TV’s election panel began to call the election for the Coalition. Once all hope was gone, the hostess of the party who’d had a few glasses of Tasmanian pinot noir was so distressed she burst into tears and fled to the bathroom. The rest of us managed to restrain our tears, but reached manfully (and womanfully) for a bit more of that excellent pinot.

The discussion that night centred on our inability to understand the motivations and beliefs of our fellow Australians. I suppose we were living up to all the judgemental stereotypes that the gleeful (and secretly very relieved) Right-wing pundits began spewing out the very next day. As doctor’s wives or husbands we were judged to be out of step, out of touch, remnants of the past: Bollinger bolshies, chardonnay socialists; hypocrites of the worst kind.

I was less sure than many of my fellow party guests that the 2004 election would be anything other than another triumph for Howard. I had been profoundly influenced by an opinion piece by Hugh Mackay, which predicted a convincing win for Howard based on his view that, despite Latham’s early campaign success, oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. According to Mackay, Howard had done nothing to lose power and voters would act accordingly.

On the flimsy basis of my ability to read the electorate (or, at least Hugh Mackay) with more accuracy than my fellow Clicquot Commies back in 2004, I am about to make another prediction: John Howard will have resigned as Prime Minister, if not by the end of this year, certainly long before the next Federal election. Obviously, I am not alone in sniffing this particular change in the wind. Michael Brissenden, in New Matilda 92, predicted that Howard was on the way out; and there have been a number of Op-Ed pieces in mainstream newspapers saying similar things although I am still waiting with bated breath for Mackay’s take on the subject.

My reasons for believing that Howard will resign, however, are slightly different. I don’t believe voters give a toss about the AWB scandal, or the war in Iraq, or even the tragi-comic opera around our first fatality in Iraq. I don’t think they care much about the pros and cons of nuclear power or even the increasing rumbles around climate change. The latest scandal about violence and abuse in Indigenous communities is of little concern to them, and off-shore detention of refugees of whatever age is a solution of which they quietly approve. They might even be prepared to wear the changes in IR laws, as long as it doesn’t directly threaten them or their kids.

No voters are losing confidence in Howard because he has broken an unspoken pact he made with the electorate and they will not forgive him for it.

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

My reading of Howard’s silent bargain with Australian voters — particularly aspirational voters in the all-important marginal seats — is that he can do whatever he likes on the ‘big’ philosophical and international issues, because they are of little interest to an increasingly inward-looking voting public, as long as he keeps petrol prices and interest rates down.

Howard’s extraordinary luck is that he has been able to appear to have done both for 10 long years. I say ‘luck’ because, of course, governments have virtually no real control over the price of petrol, even cutting the fuel taxes they impose would cost billions (and so could have a negative effect on both inflation and interest rates), for little real effect. Interest rates, while more affected by national government policies, are also strongly influenced by the global economy.

Twenty three years of excellent financial management by the Hawke, Keating and Howard Governments have allowed us to weather the storms that have decimated Asia and to a lesser extent the US, but interest rates are on the way up and likely to continue in that direction.

Voters neither know nor care about the complicated issues that bedevil politicians, they simply know they hate paying more money at the petrol pump and on their mortgage. For Howard, the timing of the IR legislation and the very effective scare campaign being run by the unions (Howard’s only real opposition) are doubly unfortunate.

Recent tax cuts notwithstanding, the electorate’s mood is dark. They are angry with Howard, for almost the first time, about what they see as a breach of trust.

No one has been better at reading the political mood than John Howard. Like others, I believe his uncharacteristic fumble over the privatisation of the Snowy Rivers Scheme is indicative of a loss of confidence.

In NSW, thanks to the Cross City Tunnel debacle, privatisation is on the nose. And we are all becoming seriously frightened about water. State Government responsibility or not, voters know Howard is the high priest of privatisation and they are losing the faith. They have discovered that ‘user pays’ means precisely that. And they hate privatisation most when it means paying not only to drive on roads — a new experience for many Australians — but also more than they’ve ever had to for the fuel that enables them to do so.

As a petrol station proprietor’s son, possibly no prime minister has ever understood the importance of the petrol pump to Australians better than John Howard. For that reason, I believe we can expect him to do a Bob Carr soon, and graciously and triumphantly retire, leaving the difficult future to Peter Costello.

Perhaps, if Costello is as smart as people say he is, he will be able to make a different secret pact with the Australian electorate, one that is not so dependent on sheer good fortune. Unfortunately for him, I believe it isn’t politicians who decide on the nature of the pact they make with voters; it is always the public, and they impose their conditions on their chosen champion ruthlessly.

If it is true that those who live by the sword die by the sword, perhaps the same is also true of those who live by the petrol pump.

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.