The Howard Government dodged a bullet this week. The national accounts came out showing that growth was lower than expected in the March quarter, which immediately took pressure off the Reserve Bank to increase interest rates at its May meeting. And so, it looks like the Federal Budget can be launched with some clear air to sail through.
The only worry for the Government is that some market analysts predict that an interest rate rise (or maybe two) are almost inevitable in the next six months. If that’s the case, then this latest reprieve may turn out to be a curse in disguise, as any rate rises later in the year can easily be portrayed by the ALP as directly related to the generous spending that will, no doubt, be part of Peter Costello’s May Budget.
This is pork barrel politics on a tightrope, folks, and it will be fascinating to watch.
Also fascinating will be this weekend’s ALP National Conference in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. (New Matilda readers will be treated to daily reports from the Conference by our political correspondent, Andrew West.) As he prepares for his first Conference as ALP Leader, Kevin Rudd is proving to be the new ‘Mr Teflon’ of Australian politics with recent opinion polls indicating that his approval ratings remain sky-high despite weeks of niggling negative stories about his glass jaw, his aggressive antics towards journalists and the kerfuffle over his office trying to stage a false dawn ANZAC ceremony to suit the broadcasting schedule of Channel 7’s Sunrise breakfast program.
The latest Sydney Morning Herald/ACNielsen poll finds that Labor would win a Federal election if it were held now, by 58 per cent to 42 per cent on a two-Party preferred basis. That’s a landslide, but believe it or not, the figures were an improvement for the Government. Meanwhile, Labor’s primary vote remained unchanged at 50 per cent (the Coalition’s primary vote rose slightly to 37 per cent).
Such figures will bring many smiles to the faces of the faceless men of the ‘ALP machine’ at Darling Harbour even as they jostle for dominance on issues like industrial relations, coal mining, forestry, environmentalism and (the big one) uranium.
Most of the set pieces at the National Conference, of course, will have been orchestrated already by back room deals between the factions, but any live gig has a certain frisson of unpredictability about it. And in politics, it’s as much about how well one projects sincerity as it is about actually being sincere. If the polls are a true indication of public opinion, then Australians continue to like the way Rudd projects and we either believe it’s a true reflection of what he actually feels, or else we don’t really give a damn any more we just think it’s time to dump John Howard.
The poll figures improved marginally for Howard, but not enough to lift the pall of doom that has descended on the Coalition’s members. For the first time since 2001 (before the SS Tampa hove into view) many must be contemplating what life has in store after politics.
The fidgety backbench and Rudd’s steady poll figures partly explains why the Government has rolled out the ‘Big Gun’ himself, Howard, so early. On Monday, Howard delivered a speech entitled Australia Rising the first in what he billed as a ‘series of speeches’ in the coming months on a wide-ranging future agenda, an agenda that includes further strengthening our economy, education reform, new social policy challenges, climate change and Australia’s APEC agenda for later this year.
Delivered at the Queensland Media Club in Brisbane, Howard talked about Queensland as the equivalent in Australia of California in the USA; a place with ‘the magnetic pull of a better life; a place where dreams are realised and trends emerge that alter a nation’s temper’. (Of course, everyone listening would have silently added that Queensland will be one of the crucial swing-States of this year’s Federal election, so, one of the dreams to be realised there might be a fifth term for the incumbent.)
Howard then went on to talk of the future, painting a picture of what Australia might look like in 2020 when ‘today’s children will be young adults’. He also talked about the challenges of climate change. At times, the speech teeters on the brink of that ‘Vision Thing’ that former Prime Minister Paul Keating was both praised and derided for. But despite all this emphasis on the future, the speech falls flat. It is mundane, cliche-ridden and predictable.
No surprise really. Howard’s speeches have never been memorable (either in content or delivery) and I don’t think he’s ever attempted to emulate the rhetoric or promise of Keating, Clinton, Blair or even Hawke. Howard is naturally suspicious of the ‘politics of gesture’ and he knows that many Australians share his bent. It’s usually resulted in speeches (and visions of the future) that are more like the plodding and pedestrian maunderings of a middle-ranking technocrat, rather than a national leader’s inspirational call to action.
In the past, with opponents like Crean or Beazley who were even more mediocre than he is, or like Latham who was always going to be too flaky, Howard’s soporific greyness was not a serious problem.
This year, however, things are different. And at the very moment Howard needs people to take him and his ‘vision’ of the future seriously, he’s looking more and more out of touch. Not necessarily a ‘dessicated old coconut’ as Keating called him recently, but assuredly Mr Same-Old Same-Old. The difference is that now there’s someone on the Opposition benches that doesn’t bore or frighten the punters.
On climate change, Howard is the obstinate refusenik that got us here in the first place and had to be dragged into the conversation, kicking and screaming — and we know it.
On national security, he’s the guy who’s sent troops overseas and, in the process, made all of us more vulnerable to attack because he believed the incoherent babbling of the self-styled Sheriff of the Western World — and we know it.
On the economy, Howard is the man who managed to fritter away the profits of the longest economic boom in Australian history on a couple of bucks tax relief a week, on health rebates only for the rich, and on idiotically expensive planes, ships and tanks for the generals to play with, while our hospitals, schools, transport systems and other infrastructure become museum pieces — and we know it.
Howard can give hundreds of ‘Headland Speeches’ in the lead up to the next election, but like the one in Queensland this week and the one he gave in Parliament after returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, they’ll be forgotten within hours of being delivered.
Ironically, politics being the strange game that it is, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll lose the Federal election. It just means we’ve all become cynical, alienated and disillusioned by politics to an extent that was unimaginable even a few years ago.
Now, that’s a legacy!
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