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History’s aced, now move on

By David Burchell - posted Thursday, 4 October 2007

Political journalist Laurie Oakes once observed that John Howard ‘has made every conceivable mistake an Australian politician can make, but he has made each of them only once’.

If Howard’s prime ministership comes to an end later this year, his fatal flaw won’t have been in replicating error. Rather, it will have been underestimating his opponents’ ability to learn from theirs.

Too often this year Howard has looked as if he’s fighting an election campaign against the Australian Labor Party of 2001 or 2004, rather than the ALP of 2007. Yet it, patently, has been living and learning too.


Oakes’s dictum came to mind the other day when it came to light that Labor’s star candidate in the PM’s seat of Bennelong, Maxine McKew, has chosen to rebuff the overtures of the “Not happy, John” movement. You know, that phalanx of Subaru owners with the little blue stickers on their rear bumpers registering their annoyance with the drift of Coalition policy since 1996.

Since - at least in the minds of the “Not happy, John” folks - that movement was credited with a shift away from the PM in Bennelong in 2004, this may seem like an odd judgment call by McKew.

Why ignore those who may win you votes? But in fact McKew’s decision follows a path consistent with every other action of Labor’s remarkably disciplined campaign team since December.

First they resisted the Government’s invitation to indulge in righteous outrage at the plight of a boatload of presumed Sri Lankan asylum-seekers early in the year. Then they refused to adopt Mohamed Haneef as a figure of pity and solicitation after the London and Glasgow attacks.

Since then Kevin Rudd has fastidiously resisted any and all of the various emotional enticements offered up to him by the fates and the Prime Minister.

Instead, he has focused on only those issues about which Labor wants to talk, rather than the issues the Government wants Labor to talk about or that annoyed ex-Liberals such as the “Not happy, John” crew wants it to talk about.


In 2001 the Government caught Labor on the hop over the Tampa asylum-seeker controversy.

Effectively Labor was trapped in a political no man’s land between supporters who regarded the internment of asylum-seekers as a national crime, and those whose main concern was with the integrity of immigration policy.

In 2004 Labor avoided many of its mistakes from 2001. But it then created some new ones of its own volition and effectively cancelled out the benefits of experience.

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First published in The Australian on October 2, 2007.

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About the Author

David Burchell, a senior lecturer in humanities at the University of Western Sydney, is author of Western Horizon: Sydney's Heartland and the Future of Australian Politics.

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