Strike up the band

In theory, the stage is set. An election could be as early as August, more likely October. Strictly it could be as late as March next year, but there is little chance of it following the US presidential election in early November. John Howard is rolling out cheques to two million households; the budget will deliver tax cuts for the administrative and professional classes. Medicare, he hopes, is neutralised as an issue, if not turned into a positive, and further taxpayer millions are spent promoting it in a partisan way. The Treasury is looted for sectional programs designed to square off sugar farmers, the roads infrastructure lobby and any environmental swinging vote capable of being garnered. A bit of symbolism is put up—on access to the Medicare records of adolescents for parents, the banning of homosexual marriages, and denying prisoners a vote at the election—not seriously, but so as to remind everyone that the Liberal and National Parties are the parties of god and conservative values.

Mark Latham seems to be travelling fairly well. Polling evidence suggests that the budget give-aways did not do much for the coalition. Labor is still the party of choice on domestic government entitlement issues, particularly health, education and community services. No-one has a clue what Labor will do in such areas: it simply has not spelt out its approach, even if it has tried to make it clear that it is aware of the financial bottom-line.

Labor is deliberately silent on an array of core emotional issues—immigration numbers, refugees, Aborigines, and justice and human rights—because it believes that voters instinctively know that Labor is on the decent side of such debates. Raising the profile creates the risk of the coalition using such matters as a wedge through appeals to Hansonism, or creating the false impression (already used by Howard to some effect) that core Labor is nothing more than a collection of busybodies with special, un-Australian interests, privileging access to lesbians, wogs, Abos, tree-huggers, dole-bludgers, union heavies and human rights lawyers, who divide the cake while ordinary decent working men and women miss out. Since Mark Latham has no record of pandering to such groups it’s the Government which runs the risk of the grenade blowing up in its face. At least Latham’s strategists believe and hope so.

This leaves two pots boiling on the stove. One is Peter Garrett whose significance may lie more in a reputation for ideals and speaking his mind than for his reputation as an environmentalist and pop singer. His natural constituency is the Greens; the party which has successfully assaulted the intellectual and emotional base of Labor and now seems set to do the same to the Democrats. Garrett’s primary pitch is anti-political.

But a gig with Labor must have enormous attractions. A person like Garrett could make a difference, the more so because in him there is a compromising and pragmatic element, which would prefer achievement to the personal reward of being pure. Even if he must compromise, Garrett can be a beacon of moral integrity to those natural constituents of Labor who are profoundly disillusioned by its moral failures of the past few years. Indeed, simply by being there, Garrett can help rebuild idealism, ideas and membership. No wonder some of the tired and corrupt old factional chiefs are horrified. Garrett may be able to reassure Labor voters that the party still has a moral compass.

It is hard, however, to imagine Peter Garrett drawing a single vote away from the coalition. He may pull Green votes back to Labor, whether directly or by ensuring that the second preference goes to Labor. But this almost invariably occurs, independent of Green leaders. Threats by Bob Brown to withhold preferences from Labor, or to direct them to the coalition, are hollow and unconvincing. But Brown represents a threat in other ways. He has himself stolen Labor votes particularly in safe Labor seats. Indeed, his biggest single constituency of late has been the natural Labor voter disgusted by Labor’s shameful record on core issues. His next biggest constituency is environmental and this is unlikely to shift to Garrett. The next, oddly, consists of religious fundamentalists, perhaps attracted by the millenarianism or the absolutism of the Greens. These too, are unlikely to rush to Latham.

The second issue is Iraq and the US. John Howard has pulled out every stop and called in every debt, in lining up Americans to assert that Mark Latham is imperilling the alliance. Whether it has worked is moot. Even if John Kerry has been prevailed upon to express concern, the fact is that the Democrat contender is campaigning on Iraq as Bush’s disastrous war, not as America’s disastrous war. The likelihood is that Iraq will get worse, not better, as the US election nears. If Latham holds his nerve, he will benefit by holding an opinion contrary to Howard’s, so neutralising Howard’s capacity to use national security as a wedge.
What Howard desperately needs is for an issue to blow up in his favour. A piece of luck like Tampa. A piece of unbelievable political luck—dare one say it—like September 11. Howard has always had his share, but he has made his share of luck too. As things stand, however, he badly needs it, and quick. 

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



submit a comment


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up