Keep the Dirt and Pork Flying


It’s on! At last, we’re approaching closure on the question of whether Australians want the ‘right’ John Howard or the ‘new’ one. Six weeks will do it, apparently.

But who’s ‘right’ and who’s ‘new’ is not as clear-cut as you might immediately think.

For instance, does anyone else find it worrying that, after over 11 years in the top job, John Howard is suddenly discovering a whole bunch of issues he’d overlooked because they’d fallen down the back of the filing cabinet like global warming, the ridiculous state of Australian hospitals, the need for Indigenous reconciliation, ‘capacity constraints’ like education and national infrastructure, broadband, and setting his own retirement date? So now, over little more than a month and a half, we’re being asked to process his supposed Damascene conversion on all these issues and more. Does this mean he’s not just the Right John, he’s the New John too? Or the New Right John? Or the Old Right John with new, added ‘Honesty’ booster?

Meanwhile, what are we to make of the ‘new’ guy, Kevin Rudd, who’s been kindly avoiding saying anything much except, ‘I agree with John’, in case we had to well, choose between them? Hasn’t he been actually pretending to be the old ‘right’ John? And does that make him the New Old Right John?

I’m offended that Rudd believes he can slip out the final versions of his conservative revolution in six weeks, during the pandemonium and heat of an election campaign. Am I seriously expected to weigh things up in that time? Or is it that he believes the educated classes’ votes are set and the swingers/mortgage belters/last-minute loonies don’t listen to any of this anyway?

Rudd, quite rightly points out that Howard in 1996 released his economic policy about three weeks into the campaign and won in a landslide. And what this says about the political process at the moment is alarming. The ‘me-too-ism’ of Rudd in 2007 has effectively drained the ‘politics’ out of the ‘process’. What we are being presented with on 24 November is a choice of the same-old same-old (with a change of presenter in a couple of years’ time) or the same-old same-old (with a shiny new face straight away). Is it time to acknowledge this and just arrange for an orderly handover every, say, 12 years?

The tactically minded are saying that Rudd and Labor are clearly doing the right thing (‘look at the polls, stupid’). The cynics are saying what difference does it make that we’re choosing between a centre-right party moving to the centre to accommodate fears that it’s out of touch with people’s perception of impending global catastrophe on the one hand, and a centre-right party moving to the centre because of fears that its agenda is hostage to a rigid ideology on the other? (Insert your own preference at ‘centre-right party’.)

The fact that we’ve entered the ‘campaign proper’ may be a little confusing at first. ‘What’s changed?’ you may well ask. After all, the dirt and the pork have been flying for months; there’ll just be more of both over the next few weeks. But ironically, it might just be easier to ignore the noise because of the increase in its frequency, volume and duration — sort of like turning the radio on to drown out any distracting noise while you study for an exam.

And sure, there are at least 16 seats around the country where someone’s vote may be important, even crucial. But for the great majority of us, the particular flavour of democratic trifle we consume in Australia means that the upcoming election will be a cross between a spectator sport, the office sweep on Melbourne Cup Day, and voting someone off Australian Idol. We’re involved and sometimes we really want to win, but it’s all a bit removed.

For the commentariat and punditocracy, however, a Federal election campaign is the epitome of the job. For them (us) the next 40 days is make or break, election night being the moment after which one emerges as either a Great Pundit (or GP), someone with their typing fingers on the metaphorical pulse of the nation or a ridiculous and pathetic opinionista, with no connection to ‘real’ people and their ‘genuine’ concerns. If you pick the correct outcome on the night, you can bask in the reflected glory for the next three years and sneer at the losers who picked the other side as ideologically driven imposters or losers.

The tug between these two tendencies, boredom and irrelevance on the one hand, against manic obsession on the other, will describe most media up to and including 24 November. These are the set dichotomies of most Federal elections in the modern era. The difference, this time, is that the Coalition is genuinely panicked about losing and the ALP is genuinely panicked about not saying anything that would mean they snatched defeat from the gaping maw of victory.

There’s a real sense in which this is a watershed election (that’s the media editor in me talking), but in the end, whether it’s ‘right’ or ‘new’ John, the range of choice is disappointingly limited (that’s the punter sitting in a blue-ribbon ALP seat talking). will be leading the move away from the horse-race approach to election coverage with our election blog, called ‘PollieGraph’. Every day, over the next 6 weeks, our PollieGraph bloggers will offer bite-sized reflections on what politicians and others involved in the 2007 election campaign have said. They will be timely, incisive and intelligent responses to the spin and smoke emanating from the political machines. Our bloggers will include regulars like Mark Bahnisch, Ben Eltham, Shakira Hussein and Jane Caro as well as newcomers like Helen Razer and Andrew Leigh. All of them have been asked to write 200–400 word blogs that cut through the verbage and offer commentary that gets below the superficial, the immediate and the glib. will continue to run longer stories on our front page, some of them picking up on issues raised in PollieGraph but we recommend this new feature to all our readers and encourage you to get involved in the conversation (just click the ‘comment’ button at the end of each post to do so).

José Borghino

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