TS Eliot reckoned that April was the cruellest month. Well, he didn’t have to survive November 2007. The last days of the election campaign were harrowing for everyone, but perhaps particularly for Labor: after all, it had more to gain. The Australian Left had been crushed by John Howard so thoroughly and for so long that not only was it out of the habit of winning; in its collective subconscious, it almost felt that it did not deserve to. To have Labor in power in Canberra would be a violation of the natural order of things.
For months the opinion polls had seemed too good to be true; now, with just four sleeps to go, they were still predicting a comfortable win for Kevin Rudd. He was so close to the Lodge you could almost detect a waft of those vile cigars Bob Hawke used to smoke. The suspense was unbearable.
From the Government side it was equally hard to believe, but there was little choice, so shoulders were squared and teeth were gritted. The general feeling was that, as Howard bravely maintained, it was still possible to win – just – but in those last hours absolutely everything had to go right.
Thus when the week began with the Administrative Review Tribunal agreeing to the suppression of documents outlining possible adaptations of WorkChoices, and the Government being accused of covering up draconian plans for future grinding of the workers, whatever slim hopes were left began to dissipate. The documents dated back to 2005, and the Government claimed they canvassed options which had been long since rejected; why, then, the obsession with keeping them secret?
It was known that the documents had included ‘options to rationalise Federal/State workplace relations and possible initiatives in relation to the setting of federal minimum and trainees’ wages’. It sounded pretty scary. This was not a good start. There was a moment of hope when, at last, a boatload of asylum-seekers appeared on the horizon, but it passed. You only get one Tampa, and the Government had used its up.
In a final interview on the 7:30 Report with his traditional adversary, Kerry O’Brien, Howard held up fairly well; but he could not help sounding as if he was running out of puff. He lapsed into the third person (‘Some people might think that Howard hasn’t done so badly’) and fell back on an old Paul Keating line, which was that if you change the government, you change the country; only, revealingly, he put it in the negative: ‘Don’t think that you can change the government without changing the country.’
Rudd, in his wind-up at the National Press Club next day, made it clear that this was exactly what he intended; in the speech of a prime-minister-in-waiting, he talked about reforming the whole process of government as well as the big policy picture. Alexander Downer said that Rudd was smug and shallow. Yes, Alexander Downer said that. Oh dear.
Dauntless to the last, Janet Albrechtsen wrote a long and somewhat incoherent column in The Australian about why Rudd still wouldn’t win. Given that she had written off Howard’s chances the month before, just who the Dominatrix thought would be in charge on Monday was something of a mystery. Rupert Murdoch, perhaps?
In the Sydney Morning Herald Paul Keating continued his long-awaited revenge on Howard with an article explaining that a change of government was essential to ‘restoring a moral basis to our public life’ after the erosion of values during the Howard years.
And then, as if to prove him right, the Libs were caught red-handed pushing the racist line in the marginal electorate of Lindsay, and any hope of a rousing ﬁnish by the Dear Leader disappeared. The offending item purported to be a message from the non-existent Islamic Australia Federation urging Muslims to vote Labor because Labor supported the release of the Bali bombers and the building of mosques in Sydney’s west. It was clearly a fake: if nothing else the concluding exhortation, ‘Ala Akba’ (presumably intended to be ‘Allah Akbar’), was a dead give-away. But its crudeness did not make it any less dirty.
Acting on a tip-off from a disaffected Liberal member, a group of unionists ambushed a team that was letterboxing the non-Muslim voters of Lindsay with the leaflet. The team included Greg Chijoff, the husband of Liberal candidate Karen Chijoff; Jeff Egan, a member of the Liberal Party State executive; and Gary Clark, the husband of retiring member Jackie Kelly. Reportedly on the advice of Tony Abbott (who else?), Kelly heroically tried to dismiss it as a prank – the sort of thing The Chaser did every week. The Chaser team responded by offering her a job and Peter Beattie offered her life membership of the Labor Party as a reward for services rendered.
It was satisfying that the dog of racism, so assiduously whistled up by the Dear Leader over the years, had at last come back to bite him on the bum.
From Howard’s point of view, the worst thing was not the evilness of the trick, but the distraction it provided. His address to the National Press Club was supposed to be the climax of his campaign, the ﬁnal appeal to the nation that brought it all together. Instead, most of question time was devoted to the Lindsay pamphlet: Howard was forced to make an increasingly agitated and petulant defence of his position. By the end of it he was shaking.
Kevin Rudd, now almost insufferably prime ministerial, simply noted that it was the ultimate example of the Government’s desperation and negativity, and indisputable proof that it had nothing left to offer the country; and that was the position as the campaign hit its ﬁnal 24 hours. Surely it was all over.
Not quite. Friday morning brought two new polls: Nielsen, which was talking super-tsunami, with the gap at 14 points; and Galaxy, which was hinting at a cliff-hanger, with the gap at just four. As the ABC’s Anthony Green noted sagely, they couldn’t both be right.
Galaxy had a pretty good reputation, but no one else had detected any sign of a late swing back to the Coalition, although Morgan, which had a gap of ten, said that Howard was looking good in the west. He certainly didn’t sound good in a sort of postscript interview on the ABC’s AM: in fact, he sounded a bit like Bryan Dawe’s senile Blimp, Sir Murray Rivers. His ﬁnal message appeared to be: ‘Please vote for me, because if you don’t things just might get even worse.’
Kevin Rudd sounded almost as tired, but rather more positive and coherent; if the swingers really were waiting until the last minute to make up their minds, he was clearly the best bet in a not-very-inspiring ﬁeld.
This was also the view of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph, the Courier-Mail, the Hobart Mercury, the Northern Territory News, the Canberra Times and The Australian, which came out for Labor. The Financial Review, the Herald Sun, the Adelaide Advertiser and the West Australian stuck with Howard. The Age remained too precious to vote. These days it is doubtful if the editorials sway a lot of votes, especially when they no longer carry the imprimatur of the legendary proprietorial moguls: Murdoch, the only one left, had honoured his promise to leave the decisions to his individual editors, who were showing a commendable diversity of opinion.
But the editors were obviously looking to their readers, and if the high Whigs of Granny Herald and the Tory battlers of the Tele were both looking Rudd-ward, then the swing was well and truly on – in New South Wales, at least.
But not according to Newspoll, which was released prematurely that evening. It agreed with Galaxy; the gap had shrunk to four points, and with two of the four major polls in lockstep, the possibility had to be taken seriously. It was hard to explain: by any normal standards the Coalition had had a diabolical last week, and the one before hadn’t been much better. However, as the ﬁrst two weeks had shown, these things don’t always work logically.
Whatever the reason, Newspoll threw an almighty scare into Labor’s supporters. Their hopes had been building for the whole year: surely the fates could not be so cruel and unjust as to dash them now? Well, why not? After all, that’s what fates were for. In the circumstances I was hardly surprised to wake on election day to grey and miserable weather: always start the day the way you intend to continue.
But the skies cleared, and on analysis the news was not as bad as it had seemed. Even on the most pessimistic reading, Newspoll suggested that Labor would still get there, albeit not as comfortably as had been predicted earlier. And the late mail from Queensland – the key State, where both leaders had spent the last day of the campaign – was particularly good.
Old hands said the mood was reminiscent not only of the Labor win of 1983, but of the glorious year of 1972 and the It’s Time election. Perhaps most encouraging of all, the betting market, in recent elections a far more reliable forecaster than any of the polls, still had Labor as a very short odds-on favourite. The general view was a Labor majority of around six seats – no landslide, but perfectly acceptable, thank you very much. And the mood in the front bar of the Billinudgel was optimistic to the point of serious obscenity.
And so, at long last, to the traditional boozy evening in front of the television, when the nation’s future is decided. It did not start well; the Tasmanian seats that should have fallen in minutes were disconcertingly stubborn, and the early ﬁgures from New South Wales and Victoria, while at times promising, were all over the place. But then South Australia ﬁrmed things up, and when Queensland came in, the Coalition collapsed like a house of cards. Western Australia, as expected, was the Government’s best result, but it was too little and too late.
The battle was over, and it was time for the survivors to start preparing for the war ahead. Malcolm Turnbull held Wentworth comfortably and made a triumphal speech which left no doubt that he would be a leadership contender. Peter Costello was equally smug and seemingly unstoppable, but didn’t quite get around to giving us the real news, which – we later discovered – was that he had decided that being Opposition leader would be just too much like hard work. Too old at 50, too lazy at any time. His wafﬂe was mercifully curtailed to make way for John Howard.
Obviously, it was a terrible moment for the Dear Leader. His electorate of Bennelong had been up and down all night; as he entered the ballroom of the Wentworth Hotel to surrender his Government, he was not certain whether it was all over or whether he would still have to resign his seat in order to put the voters of Bennelong through a by-election so they could ﬁnally elect Maxine McKew. But he remained deﬁant about his record, and broke the habit of a lifetime by accepting responsibility – both for the campaign and for the defeat – before descending into senile ramblings, during which he compared his wife Hyacinth to cement.
And on that note, he slid smoothly around the S-bend of history.
Kevin Rudd made a gung-ho victory speech more suited to the start of a campaign than to its ﬁnish, and demonstrated that one of his ﬁrst jobs should be to hire a new speechwriter. After ten minutes it was still not entirely clear where we were going. But we knew all too well where we had been.
For more than eleven years, John Howard led us on a voyage driven by greed and fear, into parochialism and paranoia, selﬁshness and racism, bigotry and corruption, and other dark places in the Australian psyche where we never should have gone. It was a mean and ugly trip, and it will take us all a long time to recover.
As he left the Wentworth Hotel surrounded by his weeping and cheering entourage of orcs, my main feeling was not of exultation or even euphoria, but of relief – the same sort of reaction as I had to Cathy Freeman’s win at the Sydney Olympics, or at the moment, 17 years ago, when I stubbed out my last cigarette. The result was long anticipated and a ﬁne achievement, but how dreadful I and many others would have felt if it had not happened.
And on that note, spare a thought for Labor’s patriarch, Gough Whitlam, who against most expectations has survived to see another Labor Government in Canberra. The ﬁnal word should be his: a great quotation which he used in another context altogether, but which is utterly appropriate for 24 November 2007: E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle. It is the last line of Dante’s Inferno, describing the poet’s return from hell, and it means: And thence we emerged, to see the stars again.
This is an edited extract of Mungo MacCallum’s Poll Dancing: The Story of the 2007 Election, Black Inc. RRP $24.95 www.blackincbooks.com.
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