Credit overdrawn

Mark Latham is doing far better than anyone expected. No one had particular faith in him, though there was a bare majority in his caucus, if not in his party’s machinery, who had the sense to recognise that a great gamble with an outside chance was more sensible than a low-risk, low-dividend Kim Beazley. But the signs, so far, are good. It’s probably six months out from an election, but the polls put Labor well in front, and show Latham, personally, gaining in stature with the electorate. The doubters worried about his self-discipline; he has kept it. The doubters thought that a history of flirting with often contradictory ideas would make him vulnerable to parliamentary attack. The attacks have been made, but they have not seemed to work. John Howard does not seem able to get a fix on him, and often responds to Latham rather than making Latham go after him. This has weakened the Government’s self confidence and faith in Howard as leader, although there is no evidence that Peter Costello is a surer bet. Indeed even Costello’s supporters suspect that his unwillingness to wield the knife against Howard is a proof of incapacity, not only to use it more successfully on Latham, but to govern generally.
 
John Howard has been in this fix before. Six months before the 2001 election he was in much the same position at the polls. Howard fights well with his back against the wall. At that time he dumped unpopular policies and not a little of his reputation for fiscal rectitude. He looted the Treasury to buy off key groups who were critical. He kept hammering away at a complacent Kim Beazley, who had imagined that government would fall into his lap, if only because the Howard Government had plainly run out of steam and ideas. And Howard was pulling back the margin well before two extraordinary bits of political luck came his way; the Tampa, and the events of September 11. Even in his exploitation of that luck, he left nothing to chance, quite happy to mislead the electorate, to misuse defence forces for crude politics, and to throw $1 billion away to save face over his Pacific solution. That Labor panicked and, seeking to neutralise Howard’s issues, abandoned any moral right to govern was mere bonus. Howard does not panic, and, this time, does not even have any core agenda or principles to defend. He will do whatever is necessary to win, and is still better at calculating the chances than any of his rivals.

Howard’s problem as he sets his budget, is not how much money there is in the bank but how much credit he has, or more accurately, credibility. He’s used a lot of it in areas where he has been regarded as stronger; national security, and management of the economy. It’s not just children overboard or gilding the lily about weapons of mass destruction, though these are the areas where he has lost trust, not only among his enemies, who never believed him anyway, but in core constituencies. He’s been spending his credibility with farmers, home buyers, school parents and hospital patients. The evidence is that an increasingly cynical electorate simply doesn’t believe him any more. Even when Howard delivers, or gets some grudging credit, there is widespread suspicion of his motives. Mark Latham, moreover, seems to have some knack at wrong-footing Howard over symbolic politics right in the middle of the legend he is trying to sell, whether about values, or the Australian dream, or self-reliance. Perhaps Latham is being cunning too, playing the same policies game that Howard did, so successfully, in 1995. The bland assurances about not upsetting the apple cart, keeping the focus on government and broad management credentials, together with some sharply focused policies on issues such as Medicare, superannuation and tax, while (unlike Beazley) uttering vague but sincere-sounding slogans directed at long-term Labor constituencies to keep them quiet.

Will that be enough? Enough, perhaps, for Labor to win back power, though Howard will be trying to shut down issues where he cannot win and polarise on issues where he may, all the time seeking to probe and expose Labor’s weaknesses. But ought it be enough for constituencies looking for something to believe in, some moral crusade they can get behind, even some amends, perhaps, for those who have been let down, whether by the Government or by Labor, or both? Does Labor really have a refugee policy anyone who has cared about the issue can support? Does anyone know what Labor plans for Indigenous Australians? Does anyone know who Labor’s shadow minister on the subject is? Has Labor offered an education policy beyond slogans? Or should those who worry about such issues shut up and hope for the best, assuming that, however awful, it must be better than Howard? Is Labor properly positioned to take on the Greens in any contest over the environment or over moral righteousness? Or does it just hope or expect that the votes will drift back via preferences? One’s answer to such questions may vary according to faith, hope or taste. But some who yearn to see the end of Howard, because they think he deserves to go, have yet to persuade themselves that Labor deserves to win.

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.

 

 

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