If the economy is the coalition’s trump card, then they seem to be taking a long time to play it.

Since the beginning of the year the government has preferred instead to try all of its old tricks. Just as a drowning man is supposed to see his life flash before his eyes, so have we seen this year Howard revive every tactic used over the life of the government; Iraq, character, illegal refugees, moral values, even education (remember that?), the Budget contribution from that political maestro Peter Costello. Rather than being the trump card, the economy looks like the last card after all the others have been played.

This is not surprising given where the phrase “the economy, stupid” came from. James Carville was supposed to have pinned it up in Clinton’s campaign room in the 1992 US election. Recall what a highly unusual election this was. It was the first election after the end of the Cold War, which had provided the backdrop for US politics for almost half a century. Its end had removed a framework for conducting political debate, that extended beyond just geopolitics. Remember that Clinton, even before the election, had already torn up the political rule book in the Democratic primary with him surviving his exposure as a draft-dodging adulterer. Indeed it was the media writing him off too quickly, because they could not grasp how the old rules had been thrown away, that gave Clinton his moniker of the ‘Comeback Kid’. Carville was basically reminding Clinton that they were fighting an election in a vacuum, where the old political values were irrelevant. There was no point in getting caught up in any issue other than the basic one of jobs and living standards.

There were arguably only two US elections where this applied; 1992 and 1996. By 2000, the lack of a values had started to be of concern, seen in the reaction to the Lewinksy scandal. In Australia, this craving for a framework for conducting political relations was also starting to be exploited by Howard, especially in the Tampa affair in 2001. The gap was finally filled with the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York.

The War against Terror has provided Howard his framework for winning ever since. The 2004 election may have come down to interest rates at the end, but only because Howard had already won the issue of trust on national security and the US alliance. In this election, however, the War on Terror is not working and now the coalition appears to have nothing left but the economy.

The trouble is, the economy is no longer a political issue. As Keating so eloquently said the other night, most economic decisions have been taken out of government hands. This is because the one real economic political issue, industrial relations, was wound up by Keating himself. Howard’s attempt to make the economy political through Workchoices is unconvincing even to his supporters.

There is only one real issue in this election, the fight for ownership of the international agenda which is now shifting from the War on Terror to climate change. Howard has constantly lagged this change-over, unsurprising given how the old agenda saved his government. He is now trying to reduce the political significance of the new climate change agenda by turning it into an economic issue. In this blog’s view, it will probably not work. It misses climate change’s significance as the new orthodoxy of global politics. It might only work if the US can also push economic pragmatism onto the global agenda. However, by the look of Bush trying to keep in step with the European leaders in the Rostock photo-op, and the language now being used by his potential successors in both the Republican and Democratic sides, it looks unlikely.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Sunday, 10 June 2007.

Filed under International relations

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