The phoney real campaign

Wednesday, 3 October 2007 

It is possible that Howard has been talking with Abbott for a long time about handing hospital management to local boards as he claimed yesterday. Although they must have settled on it in the last two months because there was no word of it when they took over the Mersey Hospital in August. Maybe it was just unfortunate that after all the careful planning they were pipped a day early by Rudd’s announcement of a national tour of hospitals. Then again, maybe this major 30 year shift (wind-back) in national health policy was concocted some time in the last few days after the woman’s miscarriage at Royal North Shore. Or is it even possible that it was hastily drawn up after Rudd’s announcement the day before? A possible clue was when Abbott called it ‘an important expression of the Howard government’s philosophy’, which for this government means policy-on-the-go.

Such policy making is what defines this government and will probably define the coming election campaign. Media interest over when the PM will call the election seems to assume that something will change when he does. Some commentators even believe that it will give the government the opportunity to roll out its strategy to claw back Labor’s lead. If the government had that strategy, it would be using it now. It is inconceivable that it would be sitting on a means of pinning back Labor’s lead and letting it drift to twelve points. Campaigns don’t create a new momentum, they just accentuate what is already there. The government can’t yet create a positive momentum because it has no policy basis on which to do so. This is probably the reason we are waiting for the campaign, the government is waiting to find something to campaign on.

But the government is not the only one with this problem. Rudd’s hospital plan was also a tactical response (but an effective one) to the vulnerable position Howard left himself when he went chasing off after local hospital funding issues in Tasmania. This ‘policy as tactic’ is a long way from the days the two parties faced each other with a well developed platform. ‘Policy as tactic’ was also a feature of Labor’s campaign in 2004 although the government at that time still had their position on national security and the US alliance, which they pursued relentlessly through the campaign on the issue of trust (a policy attack that seems to have been air-brushed out of Labor’s history of 2004 which prefers to regard the result as a Latham aberration). This time, of course, the government has no such cover.

The parties’ lack of platform also influences this question of ‘campaign pressure’ that has been seen as a potential threat for Labor. It might be more of a problem for the Liberals. Labor has managed the policy vacuum, much as they did in 2004, by making it personal. In the current anti-political environment, this makes it difficult for the Liberals to attack Labor without being seen to be ‘smearing’. For the Liberals to adopt the personal approach is now much more difficult after the recent blow to Howard’s authority over the party. As a result, with neither a personal strategy or policy agenda, the government has greater difficulty in controlling the message. Yesterday’s inept escalation by Hockey and Costello of the damage caused by a Sydney Uni report on Workchoices is a case in point. Add to that a potential for a further outbreak of panic in government ranks such as we have already seen, and it is not surprising they seem in no hurry to up the tempo.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 3 October 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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