Maybe Keating was right after all

Thursday, 8 November 2007 

A criticism Keating made in his notorious Lateline interview last June was the return to Rudd’s campaign of former Labor campaigners Epstein and Gray, both of whom Keating blamed for the Beazley defeats. At the time, this blog thought it a bit unfair given the main problem in those years was that the party had lost its old role that Keating himself had helped to end. However, without knowing exactly what role these two are playing in Labor’s current campaign, he may have had a point.

The latest interest rate illustrates just what a mess the government’s campaign is in. A quarter rate rise from a low base is hardly a crisis. Yet the Liberal leadership has been all over the place handling it. Not only have they contradicted the rosy scenario they gave just three weeks ago when handing out $34bn of tax cuts, but even yesterday Howard and Costello were getting the messages mixed. Howard was apologising but saying it would be worse under Labor, while the politically astute Treasurer was saying it was a sign of how good everything was.

The Liberals’ lack of a policy program in this election means not only are they incapable of creating any momentum, but the party is starting to fragment as government members (including the PM) focus on just saving their own seat. The Australian’s chief political correspondent says that government strategy is now focussed on individual seats, but as usual he makes a virtue out of a government necessity. The Liberal campaign is having to adapt to a party that without anything to bind them, is gently falling apart.

Yet despite the weakness of the government’s campaign, Labor has until now been incapable of really taking advantage of it. Instead it is Howard, with the dissemination skills of a lawyer, who has broken down the campaign into gaffes and trivia and Labor’s message has been lost. It is especially striking how Labor has gone backwards from some of the tactics it developed before the proper campaign began. Several examples stand out:

1. What happened to ending the blame game?

One of Rudd’s best moments this year was his response to Howard’s Mersey Hospital intervention in August. Howard had left himself open by picking a fight with the states over an argument with no substance. Rudd’s promise to take ultimate responsibility to ‘end the blame game’ between the states and Canberra tapped into an anti-politics mood that politicians were putting point-scoring above people’s lives and health.

Howard’s position has now become much worse as the takeover has turned into a shambles. But what did Labor do with it? There can be no worse case of playing politics with people’s lives than Howard’s stunt takeover of an intensive care unit. Yet Labor has seemed more focussed in the last few weeks on matching Howard’s spending announcements. Voters are less interested in hearing numbers than about how the money will be managed. Rudd’s ‘new co-operative federalism’ turned the wall-to-wall Labor government scare into a political advantage and the Mersey Hospital provided a perfect example to ram that message home. Instead it has left the field clear for the coalition to run state-by-state ads attacking all the Labor governments across the country with barely a response from federal Labor.

2. Costello is now to be feared!

Another example where Labor has gone backwards since the campaign proper started is its treatment of Costello. When Howard announced his retirement plans in September, Labor has a sensible response of not re-running the 2004 tactic of the Costello bogeyman, but instead just highlighting the confusion. Now they seem to have reverted back to the idea that a vote for Howard is a vote for Costello’s new IR reforms after he goes. There is no reason why Labor will not get this as wrong as they did in 2004. It assumes Howard will step down for Costello but if Howard won this election he could feasibly try to stay on as long as he could and renege on promises to Costello as he has in the past. The reason why he can treat Costello like that is because Costello doesn’t have an alternative agenda to challenge Howard with. Costello may like to talk tough about the unions in party circles but it as meaningful as when he bad mouths Howard behind his back. The hollowness of Costello and the way Howard can use him is even more apparent than it was in 2004, and Labor’s attempt to pretend otherwise will have little resonance.

3. The return of the conviction politician

The treatment of Costello leads to the worst mistake that is now creeping into Labor’s campaign. If there is one thing Howard relies on it is his image as a conviction politician, which he referred to again in his opening campaign ‘love me or loathe me’ line. Yet the one thing he has desperately lacked since the War on Terror faded is an issue to have a conviction on. He tried with Workchoices but it was a flop that business had little interest in. Labor’s scare campaign on Workchoices not only mis-represents what is a minor IR reform that business doesn’t need but helps Howard disguise his major problem in this campaign, he doesn’t stand for anything.

Keating is spot on about Howard being a fraud. It is not so much with his relaxed attitude to the truth but the way over the last decade this politician without a program has got away with posing as one with conviction. He was so desperate to do so that he even revived an unpopular tax in his first term just to be able to stand for something. The War on Terror filled the gap but now that is gone. He also got away with it because Labor had also hollowed out, but now it is developing a program with a new agenda internationally and a reorganising of how government conducts itself at home. The focus on Workchoices shows that Labor still has one foot in the past and is re-fighting the defeats of its past. It is a far cry from the political flair the Labor leader has exhibited over this year. Has the Mandarin lost control of his own campaign?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 8 November 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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