Pointers to the coming campaign

Friday, 21 September 2007 

The media saw what was the final day in Parliament (according to Costello), as just a rowdy mess.

Yet within it were the themes of the coming campaign. What we have are two parties facing each other with no distinctive agenda between them. Labor’s closeness to the government on many issues is not a tactic, it is a reality of two parties that have lost their historical roles and now exposed as such. It is less a case of Me Too than Me Neither. In fact the parties have even gone out of their way to construct differences on issues where little in reality actually exists, such as industrial relations.

That is not to say there are no differences between the parties, otherwise there would not be a decisive shift to Labor. The change in the international situation and the change in federal-state relations have provided background to Labor’s lead. However, where Labor will differentiate itself in this campaign is on being anti-politics. As the main parties lack any clear agenda, the party in government ends up being seen as more for itself rather than for the electorate. This gives Labor grounds to accuse the government of being out of touch. It is the real point behind the housing affordability ‘crisis’, which is less that the government has not done something about house prices or interest rates, but that it does not seem to be concerned about it. For someone who used the charge of being out of touch so effectively to come to office, Howard has been surprisingly deaf to this attack.

The government’s agenda vacuum also makes it look like it is clinging onto power at any cost. This is the real content of Labor’s anti-politics attack on the government’s mysterious ‘smear’ unit. There is little substance to these ‘smears’, Rudd himself had no problem alluding to his surgery on Sunrise and if Labor hasn’t collated its unflattering information on government ministers into the type of file that was apparently shown to Jason Koutsoukis on Julia Gillard, then it should get a decent office organiser. But Labor’s charge that the government is becoming personal only highlights the fact that it is not about policies.

This won’t be a dirty campaign or especially personal. It might be if it was close, but neither party really thinks it will be as much as they say publicly. It is important in an anti-politics climate not to be seen as too cocky and for internal reasons, not to be too negative. In reality the parties are running campaigns not to win the election but over the real political issue, the future survival of the Liberal party. Howard may make a big show of going to marginals like Eden-Monaro but the Liberals’ campaign is really focussed on its survival especially in Melbourne and Sydney. It is the safe government seats where the swing, according to Newspoll, is on in earnest that Labor is also starting to target.

Labor enters this campaign as a party in transformation. So it will be run in many ways similar to the 2004 election, by a narrow cabal around the leadership, with a lot of flexibility to develop policy, but little of the checking mechanisms to avoid muck-ups. Labor is less likely to be exposed to the instability that could easily come back to the Liberals with another bad opinion poll. However, the fragility of Labor’s cohesion can still play a role in the campaign. After all, if Labor wants to get worried about it, the source of the two smears targeted at Rudd’s family this year, Therese Rein’s treatment of her employees and financial support for the coalition given by Rudd’s brother, came not from the government’s ‘smear’ unit, but of course, Rudd’s own party.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 21 September 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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