Betting on Pragmatism or Vision


Tomorrow, as Federal Parliament rises for the winter recess, the combatants will retreat to their respective headquarters and plan for the ‘real’ election campaign which begins almost immediately, and in this era of ‘permanent’ campaigning will feel a lot like the last six months, only more intense and dirtier.

Since his accession to the job last December, Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd has enjoyed an extended political honeymoon, blushing like a bride every time someone mentions the polls. While the Prime Minister John Howard, with his talk of impending ‘annihilation’, has succeeded in establishing the Coalition as the current underdogs.

So far, Howard has been fighting a canny defensive campaign, with his priorities being the removal of possible distractions and the neutralisation of policy areas where the ALP is perceived as leading the debate. It’s worth listing some of Howard’s recent flip-flops and retreats (he’d call them the pragmatic accommodations of a reasonable man listening to his fellow Australians).

David Hicks was a distraction for those voters dismissed at Liberal HQ as ‘doctors’ wives’. Something had to be done. Witness the palpable relief on the Coalition side when Hicks plea bargained a release from Guantánamo Bay. Ironically, it now looks like he’ll be the only ‘enemy combatant’ to have been brought before a Military Commission. But who cares? After an initial spate of interest (mainly in his diet, fashion sense and film viewing preferences), the mainstream media has moved on and decided Hicks is boring.

Remember when, for Liberals, WorkChoices was something to be proud of? With polls consistently indicating that voters hated the IR policy, what had been touted as perfectly fair suddenly needed to be supplemented with a ‘Fairness Test’ and its very name had to be expunged from the Government’s routine.

Next it was Rudd’s ‘Education Revolution’ that had to be neutralised. The billions on offer in May’s Federal Budget was but the opening salvo. There’s plenty more to be done here (the Government’s neglect of this sector has been so profound), so expect to see more initiatives in the next few months many of them both assuaging voters’ anxieties about their children’s futures and wedging the Labor Party and the teachers’ unions.

Then Howard had yet another ‘road to Damascus’ experience. Just as he miraculously discovered his caring/sharing gene and inserted a ‘Fairness Test’ in the IR Policy Previously Known As WorkChoices, Howard fell off another donkey at the end of May and suddenly decided that we needed a carbon emissions trading scheme after many years of being the only impediment to such a scheme.

Well, the donkeys are trotting to Damascus thick and fast now. Yesterday, Helen Coonan, the Minister hitherto lauding the blistering speed of Australia’s broadband suddenly discovered how to radically improve it. She also discovered how good it feels to simultaneously neutralise Rudd’s broadband plans and stick a finger in the eye of Sol Trujillo and his amigos at Telstra.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Finally, in the next few days, one can expect a few pragmatic turns over the $10 billion Murray-Darling Basin plan, with the PM through his boundary rider, Malcolm Turnbull, suddenly discovering that what Steve Bracks wanted for Victoria was absolutely fine all along.

A very productive time.

Expect more. Much, much more if the opinion polls don’t budge.

And expect increased expenditure in the billions of dollars suddenly pouring into areas conventionally thought of as Labor’s strengths: health, infrastructure, transport, education (again), climate change (again), the arts. And into areas certain to create conflict and wedges within the ALP: nuclear power, unions, forestry and conservation, defence and national security, Indigenous affairs.

This week marks the end of the Phoney War. The same thing happened in the lead up to the 2001 and 2004 Federal elections. The ALP held a commanding lead in the opinion polls in the weeks immediately following the Budget and there was no immediate ‘bounce’ for the Government from the Budget. But, on both occasions, about six weeks after the Budget, Howard managed to cut back the ALP’s lead and be within striking distance.

This week’s polls are repeating that pattern almost exactly. That’s why numbers that predict a thumping for the Government were interpreted by The Australian‘s Dennis Shanahan as a good news story for the Coalition (‘Howard Closes Gap: Newspoll’ and ‘Right Tonic Dispensed at the Right Time for PM’ chimed his headlines on Monday). Newspoll showed that the gap between the Coalition and ALP on a two-Party preferred basis had shrunk from 20 percentage points in late May (40 versus 60) to a ‘mere’ 8 percentage points in mid-June (44 versus 56). The figures from the Sydney Morning Herald‘s ACNielsen Poll were not as dramatic: the gap tightening from 16 percentage points to 14 over the same period. But Phillip Coorey’s headline ‘Poll Shows Howard’s Number Not Yet Up’ indicates the general scepticism about the polls up to now and the fact that many in the media can’t imagine that Howard’s beaten yet.

What’s contributed to this turn has been a combination of slips by Rudd, idiotic blunders by a couple of geniuses in the union movement, Howard’s ‘pragmatic’ flip-flops and a few miracles; inflation figures that convinced the Reserve Bank not to increase interest rates; rain if not drought-breaking, then at least hope-inducing; better than expected growth and unemployment figures; and trend-turning productivity stats.

The opinion poll results are still formidably in Rudd’s favour. The election would still be a ‘Ruddslide’ if it were held today. But the shift in the poll figures over the past few weeks and the experience of the last couple of elections, coupled with the innate propensity for modern Labor to implode, means that Rudd cannot just close his eyes and glide into The Lodge.

And this is a good thing.

He clearly will still have to work for this prize. He has to find the policies to inspire and cajole those erstwhile Labor stalwarts who have grown disillusioned in the recent past and now vote Greens or Independent. At the same time, he has to console those ‘Howard battlers’ who are not rusted on to the Coalition bandwagon that now is a good time to return to the fold. And he has to convince a significant number of swingers or hitherto loyal Coalition voters that he’s not only a safe option, he’s a more productive and creative alternative Prime Minister.

This kind of complex message is not easy to conceive (although Gough Whitlam, Neville Wran and Bob Hawke managed it). What’s more difficult is that the message has to be delivered with both ease and conviction. It has to be natural, but with a sense of drama and history so that listeners believe that the politician believes it.

So far, Rudd has faltered a couple of times, but is still a viable proposition. And, if nothing else, he’s dragged a previously recalcitrant Prime Minister kicking and screaming to a more benign and productive position on a number of issues.

The Phoney War is over and the real campaign to lead the country will begin soon. For the first time since 1998, there’s a plausible option to Howard.

To confirm such an estimate, one only has to check Centrebet’s current odds on the next election. As Deep Throat once said, ‘follow the money’, and putting money on who will be the next PM is a profoundly different experience to telling an anonymous pollster who you might vote for in six months. The latest figures offer a pay out of $1.82 for a Labor win and $1.95 for a Coalition one. See more betting odds at Oz Politics.

My guess is that it is Centrebet’s odds rather than the wobbly poll figures that will be worrying Coalition strategists over the next few weeks.

José Borghino

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