AFTER visiting the governor-general at around midday on Sunday 5 October 2001, John Howard returned to Parliament House to announce that a federal election would be held six weeks later. The signs were looking good for the government: the arrival of the Tampa in August had helped it to capitalise on longer-term fears about “border protection,” and the September 11 attacks in the United States had given the broader issue of national security – traditionally strong ground for the Coalition – a dramatic new edge.

But the prime minister’s advisers weren’t leaving anything to chance that day. Viewers of all the major evening news bulletins saw a visual account of the day’s events in Canberra carefully orchestrated by the prime minister’s principal media adviser, Tony O’Leary. To the usual visual elements – the prime minister driving to see the governor-general at Yarralumla, the prime minister announcing the election, opposition leader Kim Beazley responding – O’Leary added two new photo opportunities: the prime minister crossing his private courtyard before leaving for Yarralumla and, later, the prime minister meeting earnestly with his senior advisers. “All networks ran the O’Leary-orchestrated footage, giving Mr Howard the lion’s share of the images on the news,” wrote journalist Dennis Atkins a few days later. “Kim Beazley’s picture was confined to his formal news conference.”

The plan to marginalise the Labor leader on the first day of the campaign was part of a strategy to present John Howard not just as the obvious choice but also as the only choice as prime minister in a time of adversity. Over the next month and a half the Coalition ran a campaign dominated by…

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