Call it Now, John


As the sighs of relief rang out from Coalition HQ in Canberra (Spin City) and reverberated throughout the land, they were echoed and amplified at News Corp’s Kippax St bunker by The Australian‘s Political Editor Dennis Shanahan. Here he is trumpeting in one of his front page stories on Tuesday:

The latest Newspoll survey showing a four-point rise for the Coalition in primary vote and a four-point fall for Labor is unequivocally good news for the Liberals and John Howard.

And here he is in another:

The Coalition has fought back after John Howard’s dramatic undertaking to retire as Prime Minister during the next term and can now make a fight of the election. The Coalition is in its best position for eight months. Its standing has risen to the same position as the Keating Labor Government in 1993, only eight weeks before the Liberals’ John Hewson lost the ‘unloseable election’.

You can’t really blame Dennis for trying to get his money’s worth out of the polls. After the unbridled joy of the 10th anniversary party that News threw for John Howard’s prime-ministership last year, it’s been a depressing 2007 for Dennis and his comrades. Since December 2006, their own precious Newspoll has consistently thrown up figures that show a majority of Australians are willing to unceremoniously and ungratefully ditch the ‘best PM ever’ for the unknown delights of a Kevin Rudd-led ALP.

Thanks to Prod

But all this excitement says more about the fear and panic of last week than it does about a sudden change in the atmospherics, let alone the underlying momentum, of Election07. A cursory look at the best poll summary in Australia, Peter Brent’s Mumble website, shows that this week’s Newspoll merely corrects the results of the previous one. What matters (the general trend) is unchanged, that is, the ALP is maintaining the same 10 per cent lead it’s had on the Government for months.

With the next scheduled parliamentary sitting three weeks away and rumours rife that Howard will pull the pin as early as this weekend, this week has also been important because it may have been our last opportunity to see ‘Team Howard/Costello’ in action in Federal Parliament.

In that context, there was the disappointing news that after almost 12 years in the job and just weeks before a general election the Government spent two hours this week ‘brainstorming’ ways to woo back the swinging voters they need to hold office: ‘A [Liberal Party] spokesman said Mr Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello took exhaustive notes during the brainstorming session.’ This was not a good look. After last week, when Howard showed unprecedented candour about his career prospects and had an epiphany that, maybe, he should come up with a few policy ideas for the future, Tuesday’s story signalled that’s it’s back to business as usual in Spin City.

Message: expect many barrels of pork to be rolled out of Treasury in the next few weeks (especially in the direction of marginal seats) as the brainstorm becomes a reality.

Then there were stories from the Coalition that their private polls were showing things in ‘key’ marginals were nowhere near as bad as predicted by the nationwide Newspoll. Gary Nairn in the so-called ‘bellwether’ seat of Eden-Monaro was mentioned in dispatches. That ray of sunshine was extinguished today by leaked internal ALP polling from Eden-Monaro which shows a massive 11.5 per cent swing away from the Government in that seat.

Message: expect some independent Coalition counter-polling from Eden-Monaro (if they have any) real soon. Although, after Nairn’s Chief of Staff compared the ALP candidate to a Nazi concentration camp guard, the Government might just let Eden-Monaro go and look for new bellwethers.

Questions about ‘tax thresholds’ thrown at Rudd in the scramble for Eden-Monaro (both the PM and the alternative PM campaigned there yesterday) exposed the Opposition Leader to attacks about his ‘economic credentials’ in Parliament by the PM-in-waiting, Peter Costello. The Labor Party has immediately countered first by pointing out that the PM made ‘similar tax gaffes’ in the recent past, and then by trying to laugh off the entire incident and asking if we want a ‘Pick a Box’ method of choosing a Prime Minister.

Message: expect everyone in Spin City to be learning the tax thresholds off by heart.

There is, of course, a serious side to all this. Is this the ‘cake’ moment of the 2007 election? Back in 1993, the legends say, Hewson was mortally wounded when he couldn’t respond cogently to a simple question about how much a cake would cost after the introduction of his beloved GST.

Message: expect the current sub-prime financial crisis and the prospect of an interest rate increase by the Reserve Bank of Australia to be used by Howard and Costello as a kind of ‘Twin Towers’ strategy. In a modified replay of the 2004 ‘Who Do You Trust?’ campaign, the Coalition will try to portray the global financial jitters as the equivalent of planes slamming into the World Trade Centre, and ask voters ‘can you trust Kevin Rudd at dangerous times like these?’

Finally, the most bizarre ‘story’ this week must be the one about Rudd’s heart condition. This is clearly part of the Coalition’s negative campaign attacking Rudd personally as well as professionally. In the weeks to come, he will be labelled a ‘manufactured’ politician playing upon his measured, careful (can we say, stilted?) manner. But West Wing-nuts will realise that attacking an opponent’s medical condition can backfire especially when we’re comparing someone about to turn 50 (it’s Kev’s birthday tomorrow) to an ageing leader who will be 69 next year.

Overall, the saddest aspect of this week has been the whole political sideshow.

In a world crying out for renewal and re-thinking (from the localised bloodbath in Iraq to the looming environmental disaster around the globe; from the attack of the sub-primes in the US and the UK, to the accelerating proliferation of nuclear-armed States) here we have John and Peter taking notes while brainstorming a few ideas with their mates, while Kevin tries to keep a low profile and not frighten the horses.

Is this the best they can do?

Please Mister Prime Minister, call the election soon, so we can get it over with and you can all start (maybe, hopefully, potentially, theoretically) doing something useful.

José Borghino

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