Without a doubt, the two big losers from last week’s political campaign have been Tony Abbott and Peter Garrett.
Abbott had a terrible two days which involved attacking a dying man, turning up late to a health debate and then using the b*llshit word when talking to Nicola Roxon. It was anything but an impressive performance and confirms that, whatever the election outcome, Abbott will not be a contender to take the leadership of the Treasury portfolio when John Howard retires. Frustratingly for the Government, Abbott’s stumbles distracted from the message they are trying to push about the economy being the central election issue.
But at least Abbott only really embarrassed himself. What he said and did reflected more on him than his party, whilst the opposite is true of Peter Garrett’s blunder. Garrett’s comment to journalist Steve Price, that "once we get in we’ll just change it all", in response to the suggestion that this was the "me-too" election might just have given the Coalition the chance it was waiting for. No doubt this stumble is due to Garrett’s political inexperience. Unlike Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Garrett has only recently played the game. He was a rock star before he entered the political fray, and in that profession there’s no party line that has to be towed.
There are two possibilities here. Either, as Janet Albrechtsen is suggesting (in her blog in The Australian), this reveals the essence of Labor’s election plan, that they intend to promise anything before the election so that they can get into Government and then break their election pledges. The other is that, as witness Richard Wilkins believed, that Garrett’s remark was simply a joke made in passing.
As Albrechtsen points out, there is little doubt that Garrett himself would want to simply "change it all". And, in this he is not alone. In particular, many in the left faction would be tempted to reverse the policies on uranium mining, the private health rebate, tax cuts, the pulp mill, NT indigenous interventions, restrictions on unions entering workplaces, the SES school funding model, citizenship tests, gay marriage, council amalgamations, among other things.
Albrechtsen claims that either Rudd is being dishonest or he is in for a huge internal fight within the party, which he could well lose. She concludes that “none of the scenarios are particularly appetising”.
It appears however that Albrechtsen may be underestimating the fact that there are many sensible and pragmatic members of the ALP who would genuinely support uranium mining, the NT Indigenous interventions, tax cuts and other good policies. It also underestimates the fact that a Labor Government will be aware that it can only get away with so many broken promises. The last time Labor lost office federally, broken promises and lies to the electorate played a huge part.
Which means that on balance Labor can be reasonably trusted to keep at least most of its promises. On industrial relations, Labor will simply have to wait until all AWA’s are phased out, and by the end of their second term all of them will have been. At the end of the day, electing a new Government, or even re-electing the current Government, involves a certain degree of trust. The question is then if the voters can trust Labor to keep most of its promises.
There is little doubt that the Government will continue to use this opportunity to paint Labor as deceptive, dishonest and insincere. The question is how effectively the Government can exploit this situation, and whether Peter Garrett has now offered the Government a lifeline it will use to secure another term in office.
Already a new attack ad has been screened so that maximum impact will be felt in living rooms around the nation. It will be interesting to see if this week’s polls will detect a revival of the Government’s fortunes.
On Sunday morning the Prime Minister appeared on the ABC’s Insiders, and discussed the Garrett "revelation" or "bad joke" (depending on whose side you’re on). Howard mentioned that similar remarks appear to have been made by Garrett in an interview on October 9 this year.
No doubt an interesting revelation. The Libs will be trying to make maximum mileage out of this, since their messages on the economy have not yet been cutting through. Paul Kelly this morning made the interesting observation that the “me-too strategy” of Rudd’s is particularly frustrating for the Coalition, who want to make the election about policies based on their wedge issues, whilst Kevin Rudd is selling himself on personality. The Government’s challenge then is to return the focus of the election back to policy. Perhaps Garrett’s gaffe can help achieve this.
In worrying news for the Coalition, Labor has trotted out a new ad featuring an "ordinary Mum" questioning Howard’s claim that "working families have never been batter off" Instead of being outright negative, she finishes with “sorry Mr Howard, but you’re out of touch”.
The cleverness of this ad is that it turns the Government’s economic achievements against it. My guess is that the Coalition will have to rebut this by showing that the economy has never been stronger, that real wages have grown and that unemployment is at 30-year record lows.
If they don’t, they are heading for the same fate Labor suffered when it failed to counter the Coalition’s economy plus interest rates campaign in 2004.