No More Turning


Kevin Rudd, proud fiscal conservative, has probably imbibed a little too much Thatcherism for my liking. But there is one piece of the Iron Lady’s dogma to which I hope he clings.

In 1980, barely a year into her reign as Conservative Prime Minister of Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s privatising, job-cutting instincts had made her Government deeply unpopular. Her colleagues thought she was looking like a one-term wonder. But at the Tory Party Conference in Brighton that year, she urged steadfastness:

To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’

The faithful erupted with cheering, at this exquisitely defiant line. Now it is time for Rudd to echo it.

After two weeks of negative media coverage of Labor’s plan to abolish John Howard’s WorkChoices legislation, the results are in. Not even Peter Costello’s vote-buying Budget, which received rhapsodic coverage in the Murdoch press page after page of the Sydney Daily Telegraph was headlined ‘Boost’ for this, ‘Win’ for that could alter the result. According to the latest Newspoll, Labor’s two-Party preferred vote is up: 59 per cent, as against the Government’s 41 per cent and Rudd’s rating as preferred Prime Minister is also up: 49 per cent to Howard’s 37 per cent.

A correspondent to Matt Price’s blog in The Australian, reflecting on the way former US President Bill Clinton seemed to become more popular as the attacks on him became more shrill, offered a credible explanation:

The polls have inverted like they did for Clinton. The more conservative journalists attack Rudd, the more his approval ratings will soar. I honestly believe this election is as good as won.

The last point is a bridge too far, but I believe we have passed the tipping point and a Labor victory is likely but not assured.

If voters, such as Price’s correspondent, seem to get it, the self-styled sages of ‘respectable’ political commentary obviously do not. The promise by Kevin Rudd and his Deputy Julia Gillard to abolish Australian Workplace Agreements is not hurting Labor. Nor is the outcry from business.

The complaints from corporate Australia are echoing off the wall. The voters are not listening. As I argued two weeks ago with research data to back up my point voters do not hate unions but they do distrust big business.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

The conservative media agenda is obvious. Having supported the WorkChoices legislation, and having campaigned for years to smash trade unions, they cannot afford to have Rudd win office on a platform that is even mildly sympathetic to organised labour. If the ALP is to win, it must be on the conservative pundits’ terms. That is why The Australian‘s Paul Kelly, once a vaguely credible Centrist, propagandised at the weekend, with the astounding connivance of former Labor pollster Rod Cameron, that Labor should embrace WorkChoices. The article offered not a scintilla of evidence to support its claim that:

The majority of voters are unsympathetic to the unions People tend to see union leaders as having a chip on the shoulder and being bitter whingers.

A U-turn by Rudd would not indicate flexibility or political dexterity. It would signal weakness.

The voters have recognised Howard’s U-turn on WorkChoices his introduction of a new ‘fairness test’ to address ‘community concern’ not as an example of responsive Government but as a patch-up job by a desperate Prime Minister. They have seen through his cynicism.

Just a few weeks ago, Howard was arguing that any change to WorkChoices would imperil the economy. Now he claims his changes do not alter the integrity of the legislation which means he was either lying all along or his ‘fairness test’ is meaningless, merely cosmetic.

One tactic that is working is Labor’s practise of damning Howard with faint praise. For years, the commentators have intended their descriptions of the Prime Minister as a ‘clever politician’ as positive. But in a political climate in which Rudd looks like an ingénue, to be a ‘clever politician’ appears tawdry.

Howard’s favourite political correspondent, Malcolm Farr of the Daily Telegraph, recently observed that Labor had upgraded the compliment from ‘clever’ to ‘cunning.’

Now that’s gotta hurt.

When most people think of cunning, they think of dishonesty and trickery. In 2001, Howard escaped the perception, coined by then Liberal Party P resident Shane Stone, that he was ‘mean and tricky,’ with a Budget that neutralised most of the Government’s negatives, especially on petrol prices. But the consistently negative poll figures, stretching over almost two years, suggested the people have wised up to Howard.

If the tipping point has indeed passed, I suspect it came around March last year, when the Government marked 10 years in office. Howard tried to dampen down the aura of celebration but there were still enough books, newspaper ‘special reports,’ television retrospectives and commemorative interviews to remind voters that it had been a long decade.

The political scientist Malcolm Mackerras argues that, in recent years, Labor Governments have squeezed out one term more than they deserved: John Cain re-elected in Victoria in 1988; Peter Dowding returned in Western Australia in 1989; John Bannon re-elected in South Australia in 1989; and most spectacularly, Paul Keating returned in 1993. But voters know when to blow the whistle on Coalition Governments.

The reassurance they need, however, is that the Federal Labor alternative is not simply competent but also resolute. The Party’s not for turning.

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.