Monday, 13 August 2007 

As the government loses control over the national agenda and descends into trivia, grandly called a ‘War on the States’, the press appears to be following.

As the year progresses and commentators start to accept the government is losing, they seem increasingly to want to make it a non-event. They may now doubt that Howard will pull through, but they are still very much in Howard’s thrall, believing that Rudd is winning as just a younger Howard.

Jason Koutsoukis in Sunday’s Age sums it up when he lists the difference between Rudd and Howard:

on education, on how to make the economy more productive, how to manage the environment, and how to shift the balance in the workplace back towards the middle, all of which are clearly appealing to most people.

Is there something missing from this list? When did Australia’s military involvement in Iraq, on which Labor and the government have a clear difference, become a minor issue? For the press, probably around February-March this year when after the embarrassment of the Obama comments and the lack of reaction to Howard’s tour of duty of the troops, the government stopped talking about it. However, just because Howard does not want to bring it up, it does not make it a political non-issue, it is critical to this campaign.

Firstly, because it is why, for the first time in nearly a decade, national security is not being used against Labor. Secondly, more importantly, Howard is now the one suffering from being on the wrong side on the War on Terror. The government’s difficulty in carrying out its international obligations to use its anti-terrorism powers on Dr. Haneef was a severe blow to its authority. It was probably what prompted Howard’s down-market turn to Queensland council borders and the funding priorities of Tasmanian hospitals. None of these initiatives will recover that authority; they are more likely just to expose its loss.

Rudd’s stance on the two key issues of international relations, Iraq and climate change, make him better able to recover that authority and underpins Labor’s claim to power. But on domestic issues, Labor’s claim is less clear. This will be the first time in Labor’s history that it will come to power where its union links are unimportant. Indeed it is this hollowing out of Labor and its factions, that has given Rudd the room to avoid getting into the minor debates that Howard has thrown up. This lack of clear domestic agenda does give a similarity to Blair that Koutsoukis notes in his article (although if Blair had a ‘sweeping narrative’ after he came to power it remained a secret known only to the Blairite cabal in UK Labour).

However, whatever domestic similarities, international issues are much touchier in Australia than the UK, because our political class has less influence. While Labor can talk vaguely about climate change, Iraq policy remains out of its hands. It is a dangerous game to make it a central issue, because ultimately policy in Iraq will not be made by who wins power in Canberra at the end of this year, but who wins in Washington the end of the next. So the campaign trundles on, both sides scratching to find differences on the domestic front, but neither able to talk of the one difference that will ultimately decide this election.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 13 August 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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