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'Greg and Marsha' can't stop John Howard remaking Australia in his own image

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 11 October 2004


In his victory speech John Howard made it clear that this election win is the start of a new era. He envisaged a newly confident Australia taking its place in the world (as though it didn’t already have a place). These sentiments no doubt reflect the psychological fact that this is an election victory that no-one can deny that Howard won fair and square. But in their high-flown sentiment, they belie the pragmatic, gritty (and sometimes grubby) real politic of the campaign.

Howard’s original 1996 win was an anti-Keating vote; in 1998 he failed to win the popular mandate, although taking a majority of seats; and in 2001 there was the Tampa. This election was won mainly on domestic issues and with nothing outside the political campaigner’s usual stock in trade. Talk of him having stolen the election by an interest rates “scare” campaign is just the losers trying to work with what little they have to de-legitimise the win. Interest rates were just one strategic advantage the Government had to use; and the campaign was really one long struggle of strategic and tactical advantage against strategic and tactical advantage, often brilliantly waged.

The campaign started with the candidates defining it as "truth" versus "trust", a brilliant verbal manouevre because it contrasted Latham’s promise with Howard’s performance. Words against actions, it sidestepped moralistic arguments about means to focus on ends and hip-pockets.

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At the leaders' debate they shifted their definitions. Howard ran on Labor's strong ground of Medicare, and Latham ran on the Coalition's strong ground of foreign affairs and defence. They wrestled around for a while on these issues, confusing their own voters, probably without gaining a single new voter.

Then they shifted onto more familiar ground. Howard asserted his economic credentials and said that a Labor government would lead to higher interest rates. He linked a strong economy to the ability to deliver increased services, and demonstrated this by throwing carefully calibrated billions of dollars (inflated by calculating expenditure over periods of up to four years) at strategically important demographic groups. Labor pounced claiming that this reckless expenditure would undoubtedly lead to higher interest rates, contradicting earlier claims that governments have no effect on interest rates.

This was a plausible claim, except that past experience of this Liberal government and the previous Hawke and Keating governments, suggested to risk-averse voters that Howard might have a point.

By the end of the campaign, Labor had spent its own carefully calibrated billions on many of the same strategically important demographics, undermining their criticism of Howard's expenditure completely.

Very few voters in our groups appeared to remember most of the policy pronouncements, but some impressions lingered. Latham won the original Medicare argument in most people's minds, but possibly then lost it with the overly ambitious Medicare Gold scheme. His schools policy also made an impact. For some it was positive but for others it was seen as the politics of envy, unfortunately reinforcing a view that Latham is too good a "hater".

On education the coalition bore the brunt of higher university fees, but countered by promising to spend money on technical education - a sure winner with the blue collar conservative voter.

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Labor's tax policy initially looked good, as it tidied up the holes in Costello's budget by providing tax relief to those earning less than $52,000 per annum, as well as removing some of the disincentives to move from welfare to work. Unfortunately it left some Australians worse off, which was exploited by the Government. They also countered with a range of measures, including a boost to childcare funding, another excursion into one of Labor's stronger policy areas.

Both sides seemed to treat the election as a dutch auction, ignoring the advice of economists and others to take the growth dividend and reinvest it rather than spend it. There was barely any effort to dress promises up as principled.

When he was on the back-bench Mark Latham said that the ALP had to win back the "aspirational" voter. As leader he appears to have been more interested in reaching "Greg and Marsha". This probably led to a number of miscalculations. Too much emphasis on foreign affairs; too much interest on whether John Howard was always honest; and the Tasmanian Old Growth Forest policy.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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