Last election it was Mark Latham who “triangulated”, this year it is John Howard. Last election John Howard won by juxtaposing “trust” to “truth” - performance versus promise. This election he is coming in perpendicularly to the line drawn between “old leadership” and “new leadership” to provide the “right leadership”. Will this be sufficient to shift the goal posts so that this election is fought across the previous field of play leaving Labor stranded and out of position? Can it persuade voters who increasingly look like they just want to change, that they should stick with the dusty and slightly dented?
I don’t think so.
But the dynamic yesterday was quite different from what it has been. Howard gave his press conference outside Parliament House, flanked by Australian flags, dressed in a sharp grey suit. Last time you saw a press conference set-up like this it might have been on the grounds of Oval Office. Howard exuded power and confidence. His speech touched on all of the issues that our polling says it should have touched on - Australian values, climate change, water, foreign affairs, economy. It targeted Rudd for lack of experience and union connections. “Right leadership” also infers “team”. It’s “Game on”, and Howard obviously loves that.
By contrast Rudd’s performance was indoors, under artificial lighting, and he looked constrained, nervous and uncertain, slightly preachy and vaguely condescending. Howard is right to pick on “New Leadership” - it is about as persuasive a marketing tool as “New Coke” - but marketing tools can work in the short-term. Rudd repeated New Leadership 14 times in three minutes and 24 seconds, the correct presentation given that when it comes to leadership the polls say that he has got it over John Howard. In fact, Howard takes a huge risk by choosing to fight this election on leadership - he hasn’t “owned” the issue for most of this year.
Rudd also frequently used the phrase “working families”, the one his US pollster Vic Fingerhut told him to use, and touched on climate change, water, hospitals, schools, tech colleges, universities, work places, infrastructure, rural and regional Australia. Strangely, the economy and the Iraq war came at the end of the speech, almost as an afterthought. Perhaps this is because despite the morass in Iraq, foreign affairs is still Howard’s issue, and a pitch to do just what the other guy is planning to do is not a strong argument for giving you control of the economy.
For me there are eerie comparisons with Queensland state elections of the late 80s and early 90s, which is not surprising seeing that so many of the same players are still involved. Labor always lays down a barrage of one or two key slogans, sometimes severely disconnected with reality but which resonate with the polling. That’s the Wayne Swan touch.
The Queensland link is one reason that while I was relaxed about Beazley Labor I am not relaxed about Rudd Labor. When Rudd ruled Queensland as Wayne Goss’s vizier government policy was driven by public relations and fashion. The Goss government laid the foundations for the crises in water and health by an almost total failure to build dams or hospitals. They also failed on infrastructure, closing the odd railway line, but not building anything much else. At the same time they over-bureaucratised the public service, and directly contributed to today’s housing crisis by introducing the Integrated Planning Act which caused a flood of townplanners and a drought of land release.
Administrative overheads went through the roof, and budget surpluses dried-up. Despite this, approval of the government was high, possibly a statistically significant result of the increase in the number of press secretaries.
The Howard Government’s early attack advertising hangs a learner’s L plate around Kevin Rudd. The Liberal Party didn’t use any of those ads in Queensland in the Goss days, but the same theme has been used successfully in Northern Territory elections. The Liberal Party advertising team seems to have decided to stick with what it knows best, so you probably won’t be hearing anything about Rudd’s Queensland adventures.
I’d hang a P plate around his neck, because he’s certainly earned his licence.
I hope that he actually learnt something from his Queensland experience. He acquired the soubriquet Dr Death here for a couple of reasons. One was the typical Australian resentment of the PhD graduate who knows everything, the other was his gift for what was often seen as vengeful micro-management. The sort of micro-management that saw every key decision go through his office, and which sent experienced public servants, seen to have been too friendly with the previous regime, off to what they called a gulag in the old Education Department Correspondence School where they learnt the finer arts of pencil sharpening until they resigned.
Forced to put my money on a result this election, I’m backing Rudd. A 15-seat Labor majority is where I think it will most probably end up. When Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, almost the house cleric for the Liberal Party, says it’s time to change, you know Howard is in trouble. I spoke to Anglicans in the two battleground seats of Moreton and Bonner in Brisbane yesterday and they echoed Jensen’s sentiments. But they had trouble recalling the name of the Opposition leader, and while they knew what they “loathed” about John Howard, they were vague on what the other side was promising.
The six weeks of this campaign is a long time. For so much of the last year we have been focused on what we don’t like about John Howard. The fact that so many of us expect Rudd to win means we will now start to worry about the things we don’t like about him, as I’ve just done. Rudd goes into this campaign wearing all the pressure, and all the expectations. Paradoxically, his favouritism may be the strongest thing going for Howard.