Long odds

 John Howard has done more than enough to deserve to lose the next election by a wide margin. The polls indicate that he probably will. Yet he remains a slight favourite in the betting. Quite a few seasoned commentators think it more likely than not that he will win, and no one is prepared to write him off. Mark Latham and Labor have not by any means done enough to deserve to win. And John Howard is not only lucky, but makes his own luck. Even if Latham has amazed his detractors by his self-discipline over nine months, people still wonder if he can hold it together through a campaign.

This is, or ought to be, a classic election which a government loses. It’s been in long enough, and if it has presided over a good economy (and can claim some credit for keeping it that way) all the signs are that it has pretty much run its course. Howard has achieved almost all of his personal agenda in politics, but this is an agenda set 30 years ago and there’s not much that’s new. The Treasurer, Peter Costello, may be set to step into his shoes but seems unable either to imbue the government with new energy or ideas, or to excite anyone about his succession. Indeed most Liberal voters would rather that Howard remained indefinitely than Costello replace him.

The Liberals are floundering because they lack direction and drive. The utter shabbiness of Howard’s refugee policies has deeply sapped the moral authority of the government. A parade of deceits, cunning tricks, dissemblings, prevarications, misleadings, and outright lies has deprived it not only of credibility but the capacity to inspire faith or hope. So too with casual abuses of the defence forces and the public service, the unspeakable greed and ethical apathy of many ex-ministers, the deceptions over Iraq, the propensity of the Prime Minister to play to some of the darkest instincts in the Australian soul, and his refusal to admit or accept any responsibility for any misbehaviours. Oh, and, of course, the sheer national humiliation of having a buffoon such as Alexander Downer purporting to speak for us, to tell others who we are, or to invite judgment of our character by his utterances.

All these were but lightly touched on by the ‘Gang of 43’—the group of retired diplomats, spooks and military people who remonstrated the government over its declining regard for truth in politics, and the way in which our national interests have been subsumed in blind obedience to the United States. The paper was, of course, directed at both parties, but no one could have doubted at whom the finger was pointed. John Howard fended it as best he could, without personal attacks on his accusers, though his back benchers probably aggravated the injuries with their jibes at the ‘old farts.’ And one of his old Liberal allies and patrons, John Valder, has established an ‘anybody-but-Howard’ movement in the Prime Minister’s own electorate of Bennelong. John Valder, an old Tory rather than an old liberal, is morally disgusted with Howard over refugees and Iraq.

The cynicism that this inspires does not merely erode credibility and hope. It also undermines the impact of tax cuts or any apparent improvements in government services. Just as critically, it weakens faith in all politicians. This comes not only from a fairly standard, and accurate enough government defence—‘they did it too when they were in office’—but from the seeming incapacity of opposition politicians to set and defend moral standards, or to represent ideals which might encourage people to vote for them.

Mark Latham’s primary skill has been tactical. He has been amazingly successful at shrugging off government attacks and in refusing to play to its agenda. He has created a number of agenda items—reading aloud to children, for example—coming entirely from left field but with some capacity to make Latham seem a politician of a new age, or a third way. Latham stumbled a bit in July, but, by August was back again, wrong-footing Howard on pharmaceuticals and the ‘free’ trade treaty with the United States. In bringing Kim Beazley back into the fold, he disabled much of the thrust of government claims that Labor is anti-American.

In the background, Bob McMullan and Simon Crean are struggling to develop budget numbers which will make Labor look fiscally conservative yet allow room to manoeuvre in areas such as health and education. Labor is, of course, more comfortable when quality-of-life matters are the political issue. Yet it is hard to envisage that Latham can comfortably win an argument fought on economics, even on social policy. That’s not because the government has successfully defused such issues, but Labor has failed to develop or sell a broad economic agenda.

This scenario highlights Howard’s continuing strength—the view that he is broadly sound on economics, even if a bore, untrustworthy, and a bit of a worry on other matters. This is compounded by the idea (never successfully repudiated thanks to high interest rates in the 1990s) that Labor is a party of profligates, wastrels and feckless gamblers, rather than the people who remade the economy precipitating the prosperity of the past 13 years. Mark Latham has not invented either a new story to tell, or a new ideal around which voters might unite. If he’s lucky, John Howard might lose all by himself. If we want to be lucky, we would do more to pin Labor down to an agenda.  

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



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