If the first two weeks of the 2007 Federal election campaign were dull, yielding only a flurry of pork barrels in the first week and the squirm of The Worm in the second, the third week has already offered a panoply of revealing images.
Shadow Environment Minister Peter Garrett’s ‘gaffe’ on Monday on how the ALP would handle the next phase of Kyoto Protocol negotiations topped the beginning of the week for sheer embarrassment value. But it was easily trumped yesterday by Health Minister Tony Abbott’s triple-sensitivity bypass.
Singing from the same hymn sheet
The most telling moment of the week, however, was John Howard’s performance on ABC TV’s Lateline on Tuesday. Fresh from a morning Newspoll that had the Coalition apparently clawing back some of Labor’s massive lead of the past 10 months, Howard swabbed the floor with both Garrett and Rudd in a performance that was both relaxed and powerful. The magisterial quality of Howard’s performance was helped immeasurably by the bizarre behaviour of Tony Jones who asked Howard a string of ridiculous questions that were either batted away or despatched over the long-on boundary with a smirk and contemptuous flick of the Prime Ministerial wrists.
For example, what were Jones and the jolly japesters at the ABC thinking when they decided to throw this ‘zinger’ at the PM?:
Tony Jones: Final question, it’s often said that voters were waiting for Paul Keating with baseball bats. Are you at all worried they might be waiting for you with slippers and a comfy chair?
The look of glee mixed with disbelief and disdain in Howard’s eyes said it all, as he settled in for a parting ‘free hit’:
John Howard: I think what people are waiting for is a proper engagement between Mr Rudd and me on the important issue, and we begin to have that engagement when we address the future and don’t nitpick about the past.
We begin to have that engagement when we ask ourselves rhetorically which policy is more likely to keep unemployment low, which policy is more likely to keep interest rates as low as policy, which policy is more likely to maximise a society in which we can have genuinely full employment and that means people not only having a job if they want one, but having the job or the career that they really want.
I think they’re the things that people are waiting for and wanting of both Mr Rudd and me.
After that, it was left to Jones to acknowledge defeat:
Jones: You certainly avoided that question, Prime Minister, rather neatly. We thank you very much for taking the time to come and join us on Lateline tonight.
Howard: It’s always a pleasure, Tony.
Howard was at the top of his game on Tuesday. You could tell that he thought the worm had turned (so to speak) and that the boot was on the other foot (and that the foot was firmly planted in Peter Garrett’s mouth).
As Greg Sheridan in last week’s Australian backhandedly observed, there is no better tactical politician in Federal Parliament today than John Howard and he rallied on Tuesday around what he saw as yet another ‘me too’ moment from Kevin Rudd’s ALP.
The past couple of weeks have seen the Coalition on a desperate spending spree, trying to isolate and neutralise as many issues that are ‘winners’ for Labor (like training, education, health, infrastructure). And this week, Howard thought he could neutralise the environment and especially ‘climate change’.
Because of Garrett’s reported slip and Rudd’s supposed turnaround on the circumstances under which a future Labor Government would or would not sign a new version of Kyoto, Howard was able to assert that the ALP was following him on climate change and not the other way around. He was able to say, parroting Rudd, let’s concentrate on the future and not on the past. And then (stunningly) he was able to say that he was willing to go along with the ALP’s newly released renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020, without batting an eyelid.
When you remove all the spin from Tuesday’s huff and puff, what we’re left with is two centre-right political parties vehemently agreeing with each other and both performing ever more rapid and elaborate backflips in an attempt to nullify the merest possibility of a policy gap opening up between them.
This week, the 2007 election campaign became a matter of ‘Me Too Squared’, with the only choice being between the same old bull and the newer bull that smells the same but looks slightly fresher.
And it’s this sameness that’s the most embarrassing part of the whole circus. If politics is the science (or art) of making a choice, we have now reached a moment in our history where we will have a political contest essentially devoid of, well, er, politics.
A spectacle, where the media follow both sides’ jet trails across the country and report on gaffes, blunders and booboos for the nightly bulletins (Politics as Blooper Reel). A ‘presidential’ race where policies are meaningless because they’re identical and we’re supposed to make a choice on first impressions and whether we ‘like the look’ of a bloke or sheila. A crazy quilt of disconnected announcements, telling anyone who’s around and relatively awake that another billion has been earmarked for this or that. All played to the incessant beat of the poll drums in the background, telling us what we think (on average) even before we’ve thought about thinking it.
Why not just have an orderly handover every 12 years from one bunch of bureaucrats to a younger set of bureaucrats, and decide the Leader by a nationwide, compulsory, Australian Idol-style vote?
Amid all the bluster and fuss, the Reserve Bank of Australia is set to increase interest rates next week, the day after the Melbourne Cup. As both our major political parties try to sing ‘me too’ louder than each other, no amount of choralling will hide the fact that if the RBA does raise rates it’s ‘Arrivederci Howard’.
The question then is: will anything have changed, really?
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