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Howard down but not out

14 Mar 2007

Labor is confronting the PM even on his home ground, writes Jack Waterford

PRIME MINISTER John Howard fights best with his back against the wall, and has all the advantages of incumbency, not least a very large supply of taxpayer cash, a comfortable margin and the right to set the date of the match. But he looks up against it this time around. He has been in this position before - well behind in the opinion polls about six months out from an election - and ended up coming in comfortably, partly with skill, partly with ruthlessness in diverting public money to partisan purpose and partly with tremendous political luck, if events such as those of September 11 can be so called. But Kevin Rudd appears to be grinding him down. So far, John Howard has not got his measure, and an attempt to attack his character, via Rudd’s pratfalls with Brian Burke, appears to have had little effect: it may even, if the opinion polls are any guide, have reverberated on Howard.

Three years ago, Howard was struggling to get to grips with Mark Latham and, seemingly, in much the same trouble. Latham, hard to pin down, was not unskilful at opening new fronts in a way that sometimes seemed to baffle Howard. Latham, however, had always had a reputation for being erratic and, though he remained amazingly disciplined up to election day, Howard’s own grinding campaigning raised real doubts about Latham’s experience, steadiness and capacity to manage government and the economy.

The early 2004 polls suggested that voters had had about enough of the Howard government, and were looking for an excuse to get rid of it. It was not so much a matter of its having run out of steam, although there were elements of that, as of its sins and errors of omission and commission having finally caught up with it and the government’s having done enough to deserve to lose. But as the gaze of voters turned to and lingered upon the alternative, they became less and less willing to entrust government to Mark Latham and his team. Howard had not only persuaded them it was too risky, particularly in economic management terms, but actually increased his majority.

Some might compare this with Keating’s victory over John Hewson in 1993. Voters had been quite ready to throw Keating, and Labor, out. But they looked at Hewson whom Keating had portrayed as a “feral abacus” and decided the devil they knew was preferable. Next time round, albeit after a disastrous flirtation with Alexander Downer, the Liberals were led by a dullish but steadfast and determined man who did not frighten the horses. Howard was swept to power, not on a program so much as for not being Labor or Paul Keating.

This time, Rudd may be able to defeat John Howard by not being Liberal or John Howard. Howard, in government, may have proved more radical, inspired and ruthless than voters had expected, but he has worked hard, and generally successfully, at being the same calm, steady, determined and unfrightening man who won the trust of voters in 1996.

But 11 years is a long time, and he may well have worn out his welcome. In campaigning so far, he has been very focused on his, and his team’s, experience, measure, the strength of the economy and the fear that a wilful, incompetent or ideological Labor government might wreck it. But the pitch does not work as successfully against a Rudd as against a Latham. The more one looks at Rudd, so far at least, one does not see a ticking time bomb like Latham but a dullish, cautious, steadfast and determined man. Very much like Howard in 1996, and not very frightening. Not a person greatly open to personal attack, or much able to be accused of having a secret agenda. Not easily accused, because he is essentially a loner, of being a creature of mysterious outside forces, such as the Labor factions or the unions. Not easily accused of simply not knowing the mechanics of government and administration. Able, like Howard, to be accused of not having much in the way of charisma or a vision, or of offering the inspiration of a different, better society ahead. But able, like Howard, to project some image of essential decency, solid philosophic foundations and instincts, and of not being likely to do something truly stupid in reacting to events.

One can invite voters to switch their gaze to the Rudd front bench, but the very act of doing so invites a look at Howard’s front bench and his own passengers. Both sides have some able performers; both have some dreadful ones. A marketing problem for Howard’s talking up of his team is that some of the better players (and some of the hopeless ones) are visibly jockeying for leadership positions after Howard, and Howard has never been a happy hostage to the ambitions of others.

The electorate has usually rated Labor better than the Liberals on social issues such as health and education but weaker, and potentially more dangerous, on economic and national security issues. Events, and some dogged work by Rudd and his predecessor Kim Beazley, have pretty much neutralised Howard’s grip on national security, and Howard’s efforts to portray Rudd as a cutter and runner over Iraq have not seemed to work. Time, or luck, may give Howard the opportunity to manipulate some crisis - occurring near or far - to rally voters behind his flag and, if such opportunities arise, Howard will presumably exploit them. But he faces an electorate that has become far more cynical about his overblowing past crises, not least Tampa, “children overboard” and the reasons for invading Iraq, and he may well find it more difficult to get traction this time than he did in the past.

Howard has been greatly assisted in the past by the unwillingness of Labor leaders to confront him on economic issues. It has seemed Howard’s strength, not least because the economy has done well, unemployment has fallen and world conditions have been so favourable. Labor can point to its own pre-1996 structural changes for having done as much to create the conditions for the continuing boom as changes made by Howard and Costello, and can point out that, in any event, the boom owes more to world trade than domestic lever pulling. But Labor has long worn the blame for the recession and high interest rates in the early 1990s and (less fairly) the “black hole” of 1996. Howard relentlessly promotes his government as the author, and guardian, of prosperity. Better, the Labor strategic geniuses have said, to focus on issues where Labor can win the debate. They have let it go by default.

Right now, however, Labor is performing better in promoting itself as economic manager, even if it seems to be promising only slight change and fine-tuning to the Coalition approach. Rudd’s cautious and conservative image allays some fears of Labor as natural-born wreckers. Howard is now claiming that the bad polls show “the Labor Party has successfully created the impression [with voters] that it doesn’t matter who is in government, the economy will successfully grow; they have created the impression the economy runs on autopilot, which could not be further from the truth”. That is, no doubt, an impression he will be seeking to change, even as he splashes budget largesse with gay abandon around marginal seats, and devotes more and more public money to advertising government programs. Though Howard’s capacity to survive has surprised many before, a good many observers are saying this last hill will prove too high.

Jack Waterford is editor-at-large of the Canberra Times, where this article first appeared.

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