Shades of grey

Most of the election so far has proven to be a referendum on whether we could endure having John Howard back. Not a referendum, as such, on his achievements, such as they are, because we take them mostly for granted. Nor on his malfeasances. Aside from some general innuendo about his being a liar, no-one seems to care much, least of all about refugees or going to war in Iraq. Labor doesn’t care, in any event, lest it draw attention to its own inglorious record in the same area.

It’s not that anyone much, even most Liberals, could summon great enthusiasm for Howard. He has again allowed himself, reluctantly, to be painted into a corner, promising to stay forever, knowing that Peter Costello seems hardly capable of attracting a single vote. Or that many believe that Labor equals fiscal instability and higher interest rates, or risky and reckless hands guiding SS Australia in an uncertain ocean. But John Howard, however boring and sometimes pedestrian, is known and predictable. While never inspiring, Howard seems safe enough to many punters.

Howard could hardly be accused of campaigning on his principles, or on his convictions. He has both, but not much of an agenda with either. Everything he is campaigning with is focused at holding the line. Spend whatever seems necessary to neutralise Medicare as an issue. Do whatever seems necessary to prop up pesky sectional interests. Risk even the fundamental reputation for fiscal rectitude if it is only money standing in the way of shoring up support, or winning it back. And nagging, ever nagging, with whatever wedge comes from within the most cleverly worked focus groups Australia has ever seen.

That’s not to say that Howard will win. Despite what the bookmakers seem to think, the odds still favour Labor, if only because the Howard Government seems to have run its course. Mark Latham has, in technical terms, performed fairly well, maintaining discipline and focus, and dealing reasonably professionally with most of the inevitable misadventures. Latham has been outperforming Howard on the hustings. But he has seemed dreadfully dull. There has been little in the way of inspiration, only a little more in the way of aspiration, and nothing which appeals to the heart or the gut that reflects conviction, passion, a willingness to make a stand or even (gasp) stand for anything. John Howard’s jibe that he does not know what Latham stands for was cleverly researched. It is by now apparent that Latham has sufficient substance to be rated a reasonable contender for the Lodge. The cheers which will follow his cart there, however, seem more likely to be those of sheer relief at the demise of Howard, rather than any belief in a shining new dawn.

Some of this is deliberate, of course. Whatever Latham promised about being himself, on being elected leader of the Opposition, he has been persuaded that he cannot appear to be the lightning rod or the withering tongue. He is perpetually closeted with advisers and people helping him prepare lines: the same people who worked with Kim Beazley, to such ill effect. And Latham is following the same essential strategy; present a small target, reduce the incoming government’s baggage by keeping promises to a minimum, limit those promises which might excite misrepresentation or counter-interest groups, and avoid addressing any fundamental issues likely to make people anxious about a new government taking them in worrying new directions. Mark Latham is, perhaps, choosing his own battlegrounds with rather more effect than Kim Beazley, but they are safe and predictable ones, calculated not to take people outside their comfort zone. There’s no real turning back the clock, indeed no fundamental new post-Howard direction, on industrial relations reform, on the public sector role in the economy, on our broader foreign policy, even on our relationships with Asia. The differences between Labor and the Liberals on hospitals and Medicare, higher education, defence and environmental protection are of reasonably narrow compass.

If there are major differences with the Coalition over what were once core Labor values—looking after the disadvantaged, the poor, the helpless, and the people who are never given a chance—no-one would know it from anything that Mark Latham says. We hear next to nothing about from Labor about Aborigines, migrants, refugees, the disabled and the feckless underclass. This reflects the view that there are no votes in them, and the risk, if one speaks up for them, that such action will alienate Latham’s aspiration classes, who believe, as he continually reminds us, in decency, and hard work and not bludging. Presumably the bleeding heart vote will come to Labor via the Greens—the modern home for sentimentalists, Christian socialists, Labor traditionalists and utopians, or so the professional Labor ascendancy thinks.

The stripped-down third-way Labor ‘movement’ may lack some working parts. To many (Mark Latham in particular), it sounds awfully priggish and selfish. This stance enables Labor to compete only for the accolade of being better technical managers of the economy. Or of having somewhat better insights into what will promote growth. But no heart. No moral reason to govern. No faith. No hope. And damn-all charity. 

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

 

 

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