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Time for some 'you too' rattle and hum

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Wednesday, 21 November 2007


Just as Paul Keating’s penchant for divisiveness and cultural warfare was a prelude to his successor John Howard’s brand of politics, so the template for Rudd’s 'me too' election was Howard’s 'small target' strategy in 1996.

'Me too' is a response to the (growing?) advantages of political incumbency and the rigorously enforced media values of infotainment (although the campaign launch suggests we’ve already seen the high watermark of 'me too').

In an age where politicians' messages only travel in sound bites and photo ops, every unscripted moment or departure from the conventional wisdom spells danger. Dr Hewson’s very reasonable (but complex) explanation of how his GST would affect the price of a birthday cake is a legendary cautionary tale of how not to campaign. His error? - answering the question. And then discussing policy in detail.

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That’s no way to handle the mother of all scare campaigns, where the media had long since abandoned interest in the policy detail and were back to race-calling the election and telling us how disastrously 'off message' John Hewson had been.

Governments can control the news with policy making (and leaking) agenda setting and 'information campaigns'. And they can thrash out new policy over long periods of feedback between themselves and officials. By contrast under the Charter of Budget Honesty, Oppositions get one hour’s notice of officials' first and final costings of their policies before they’re released.

Living in terror of the next 'wedge' or scare campaign and the embarrassment – deserved or not – of official disagreement with Opposition costings, those words 'me too' are a haven in a heartless world for an Opposition.

Still where 'me too' is a dirty word in the media, robbing it of the oxygen of set piece battles to report, we might ask whether 'me-too' – that’s bi-partisanship we’re talking about – is all bad.

When it comes to constitutional change, history teaches that each major party has a veto. There's now tacit understanding that it’s 'me too' or a lost referendum.

And there’s a class of policies which, though broadly agreed as worthy by informed policy makers, would also be electoral poison without bi-partisan agreement. For example, reducing concessions on taxing the family home, capital gains and negative gearing could fund large reductions in other taxes. And both state and Commonwealth governments should replace the plethora of special deals given to senior citizens and others with greater assistance for those in genuine need.

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Right now neither party can say much about these issues for fear of the inevitable scare campaign. Political leaders might cut through this Gordian knot by indicating that they support such measures but only if there was broader political support including from their opponents.

Could this happen soon? Probably not. It’s simpler to stick to the pantomime morality in which words and deeds move in lock step.

There's another kind of 'me tooism' that requires no great courage for a politician to grasp – only the imagination to see its advantages. Caution in the absence of stronger support can guard against hubris and so lead to a firmer and more long-lasting grip on power.

After the debacle of Iraq, new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is making a splash by reasserting the role of parliament over the executive, for instance in committing troops abroad. Had John Howard stayed truer to public sentiment regarding our participation in Iraq (not to mention workplace reform) he might look a little less worried today.

It’s not too late, even in this campaign, for either side to get the ball rolling in making the transition from the negativity of 'me tooism' to a more constructive 'you tooism'. It could do a Gordon Brown and commit itself never to send Australian soldiers into direct combat overseas without bi-partisan support.

Meanwhile if the Government had thought harder about the dynamics of 'me too' it might have pitched Monday’s policy launch differently. If the election were a simple auction, the Government’s near $10 billion of new spending provided a budget, a new benchmark of respectability, from which Labor could play ‘me too’ and cherry pick. As it’s turned out, it gave Rudd the opportunity to differentiate his offering more fully. Whose judgement is superior? Time will tell.

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First published in the Australian Financia Review on November 15, 2007



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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