|Issue No 118||02 November 2001|
Week Four: The Battle Lines Drawn
It was a week that saw the leaders launch their campaigns, kiss lots of babies and battle for space with a Holy Jihad.
Weekend: Howard's Baby Bonanza
The election auction is up and running after the weekend launch of the Liberals' campaign. In lieu of coherent policy, the Libs revert to their grand tradition of throwing money at the electorate. There's been some great campaigns appealing to the electorate's baser instincts in the past; who could forget the Fraser Government's fistful of dollars tax pledge? Only, having frittered away the surplus, there is only about a billion to throw - which means targeting the largesse. And the target is new families, specifically supporting stay at home mums - and the richer the mum, the greater the largesse, with payments based on the previous year's salary. While the tactics assure some baby-kissing front-line schmaltz it remains to be seen whether the electorate will see this 'policy' as anything more than the $20 per week back-hander it is.
More instructive than the Howard address is the rousing reception that Phillip Ruddock receives at the launch - he is revered as a sort of modern day John Wayne. He's earned his legend status amongst the Libs for implementing the party's masterful 'wedge politics' play of securing our national borders, even if he's trashed our national reputation in the process. His credentials as a 'wet' may lay in tatters but he will be remembered as a hero of the Hard Right for his stewardship of immigration. More boatpeople news stories follow on the evening news, this time a boat that has allegedly gone missing after the 'boatpeople' took the people traffickers 'hostage' off Lombok. It emerges later the ship has been found, but not before the headlines delivered some more secretly coded benefits to the Bad Guys.
The problem that does emerge for the government over the weekend is the Coalition's plan to privatise Telstra. Costello let it slip last week as he attempted to poke holes in Labor's policy costings. Seems the Libs have earmarked money from the full sale of Telstra into the budget from 2003. The Nationals run protection under the line, "absolutely no sale of Telstra until regional service levels are met", but the questions remain - what levels and on whose say so? This is the sort of doublespeak that gives politics a bad name; if they're going to flog it, just say so. The Labor negative adverts are beginning to run - and they're right on the money - reelect Howard and wave good bye to public ownership of Telstra.
Monday: The Dream Run
The front pages are plastered with images of babies and the extended Howard family, as good an advertisement as one could get against the policy platform. Of course the Telegraph is the cheesiest with a cartoon of Howard in diapers building the graph that shows the punters how much they'll save. It's all soft and uncritical, although the reactions from voters are instructive. One young woman is quoted as saying the money would be better going into education and health, which is Labor's point exactly.
The whole Howard show goes to expose the enduring differences between the two parties - Labor believes in collective approaches - an education and health system - the Liberals believe in giving the resources straight to the individual. Labor's problem is that self-interest will always take the money first, until there is some form of engagement and explanation on the benefits of acting collectively. It's instructive that this type of language is completely missing from the campaign, not because Labor doesn't get it, but because they're afraid the electorate won't. It's the 'aspirational' analysis pioneered by Della in NSW that has gone to undermine so many Labor values. We'll treat the public like they're greedy and then try and trick them into vote for the collectivists. When you treat them like that, it's a hard sell.
But Beazley is continuing to sell another rush of policy announcements - there must be three or four a day now - everything from Kim's Plan for Cancer (better access to treatment) to his Plan for Contemporary Music (same as 1998, only softer on parallel importations). They're not getting the attention they deserve though, Kim's plan to improve Medicare, for instance, gets nothing more than a postage stamp-sized run in the Telegraph. But there's better coverage in the Herald, even an arty shot with Beazley and a bub. Babies aside, it's Telstra's that's getting the most purchase, the Nationals in damage control and Costello and Howard trying to neutralize the issue. But the sale's in the budget and there's nowhere to hide and Labor will continue to flog it for all its worth.
Tuesday: Reality Checks
The Australian trumpets the ominous message - "Labor in Deep Trouble", details of the latest Newspoll show Labor's surge back into the contest stalling. It's right next to another photo of Howard and the Mrs terrifying some more young Mums. The baby gimmick is being worked in spades by Howard and they're all white babies too. Could this be another coded message to the mass voting public terrified by the influx of hoardes of foreigners who will rape and pillage our homeland? They're not honest enough to say it, but it's between the lines - we need more white people. Are they this evil? Is this what the Baby Bonus is really all about?
It's not a good day for Beazley. Laurie Oakes hammers him for evading, then admitting meeting BHP's John Prescott over a Keating idea to sell Telstra in 1996. Beazley claims he was there to listen "as an opponent to selling Telstra". It's been a line peddled around the Canberra for months, but now it has currency. Howard is desperate to make capital out of it - he's the one planning to privatize the carrier after all, but even he mustn't be able to believe his luck With the Libs squirming around on their not so secret sales plan, it's not just a diversion, but further reinforces their subterranean message that Beazley is all over the place on policy.
The media mark it down as a technical foul for Kim. His sin? Trying to block questions early in the day, then being flushed out - it means Howard gets to run two doorstops on the issue and the Beaze has to sweat twice. The drawn-out response means the story dominates three cycles of news, when it could have been blocked at the start of the day. The only upside for Beazley is that the war on terror is again dominating the evening bulletins - all the elements: bombs in Afghanistan, more anthrax in the US, Afghani refugees rioting in Indonesia and the Australian navy towing another leaky boat back out to sea. At the end of the day, if the world is on the brink of a Holy War, who really cares what happens to a phone company?
Wednesday: Bouncing Back
A fresh poll, a fresh set of numbers - this time Morgan puts Labor four points in front. I want some of whatever they're taking. Still, the fluctuating polls hammer home the reality that there has not been a single vote cast at this point in the campaign. As the Chaser boys keep observing from the National Tallyroom - "at this stage it's too close to call". 10 days out and the election is still very much a side-show - even compared to 1998 when the footy finals dominated and noone gave Labor much of a chance, there was a real buzz around the place by this stage - it's been lost this time, not the least because the one issue that would generate serious passion for labor - a humanitarian response to the boatpeople - has been neutralised.
Undaunted, Beazley launches Labor's policy at Hurstville Civic Centre - the feel is very Tony Blair - the luminescent blue backdrop - the focus group feedback replacing a campaign theme - "Jobs, Health, Education". There's been a growing number of British accents in the Sussex Street lifts and the suspicion is they've been recruited to show the colonials how to win. Beazley is jumpy for what is the most important set-piece since the debate - after each line he grins sheepishly - almost giggles - is it nerves, over-buffing from the image makers or an attempt just to lighten up and let himself go for what could be the last hurrah of his public life? As his address unfolds, the profound injustice of this campaign crystallizes: Beazley is so much better on the hustings than his opponent, he just can't get the space to engage.
And there's substance the Knowledge Nation concept - $1 billion for education, big bucks for remedial teaching and IT training, the flesh on the Knowledge Nation bones. Beazley strains against every prolix sinew and sticks to the tightly-worded speech. He even summarises the Knowledge Nation to one word 'jobs' and wraps it into the sort of rhetoric that would kill a peace-time election, thinking smarter to provide greater opportunities for the generations to come, the State as the facilitator of national efforts to lead the world in biotechnology, IT and environmental sustainability. It all holds together, which makes it even more dumbfounding why they let Barry Jones loose on it. What does emerge is that Labor has a long-term plan, a plan that would make Labor a shoe-in if it weren't for outside factors.
Thursday: Casualties of War
Beazley's launch is well-received - front page treatment and positive commentary. At last people can see what the Knowledge Nation is really about - thinking for the long-term. At last the voters have a clear distinction between the Howard and Beazley agendas. You can see what the Labor strategists have been holding out for - a coherent, slick package that brings out the best in Beazley and the people he wants to vote for him. Even in the current climate, the big media hitters play it up, thankful to have something at last to analyse after the minimalism of the Liberals' launch.
Unions hold nationwide meetings to highlight the issues of jobs and job security. Beazley delivers a pre-recorded video message promising to begin the repair work form the day he takes office. Again it was the demands of war that have swamped the event, original plans to have Beazley address workers live via Sky Channel were scuppered when their were troops to send off to the War on Terror. The issue of jobs is the missing link from Labor's trifecta of key issues: Health, Education and Jobs. The roll call of job losses in recent times is stark and could undermine the Howard government economic credentials if anyone had the time or the attention to take notice.
But the war encroaches yet again, Labor's candidate in the marginal seat of Gilmore, Peter Knott, scores national headlines by being quoted by a local paper as saying what most CNN commentators are now saying: that US foreign policy is implicated in the Septemeber 11 tragedy. Like Anthony Mundine, this is regarded as heresy; Howard tries to link it to Pauline Hanson's overtly racist comments before the 1996 election and calls Beazley to drop Knott from the ticket. The media happily lap it up. In the wartime hysteria Knott is forced into a humiliating and Orwellesque apology - IO was wrong to have these thoughts. The whole sorry episode highlights the dangers that lie in patriotic bipartisanship on a complex geopolitical issue. But the short-term damage is starker - it's knocked the Knowledge Nation off the front page.
Friday: The Holy Jihad
The Taliban branch of the Liberal Party campaign swings into action, giving Howard the dream headline - 'Jihad on Australia'. We are no longer just sending troops overseas, we are now the targets of terrorism. It just keeps getting worse for Beazley: who cares about education when we are being attacked? The newspapers are beginning to report that Beazley has privately stated he needs a 'miracle' and the recriminations are beginning. Not for a bad campaign - it's been good in the traditional sense; but for the lack of flexibility when the extraordinary events overtook the master plan.
For Beazley there's now just seven days to bring it home. He'll criss-cross the country and stick to the script. He'll outperform Howard on policy and personality, he will win swinging voters and charm reporters. He will paint a picture of optisim, of engagement with the future and a world linked by new technology. He will agree with Howard on foreign policy, while differentiating Labor on the domestic front. He'll push his themes of health, education and jobs. He will fight it to the line and he will shine in the process. But, I fear, it will all be to little avail
While some around me are keeping upbeat, I just can't see the impossible happening. The reports for each marginal is that "things are really promising", but it doresn;t wash with me. Look back at the climate when the two most recent Labor Administrations won power: Whitlam and Hawke. In both cases there was a mood of optimism within the community, an awakening - something that I would argue is a prerequisite for a government with a reform agenda. And now? We seem more scared and inward-looking than at any time in the past 30 years. Partly though the world events, partly through the masterful maneuverings of our arch-conservative leader. By luck and good management, Howard has created the perfect climate for a conservative regime: fear and loathing.
Interview: Flying High
ACTU Secretary Greg Combet on saving Ansett jobs, defeating Howard and wooing a new generation of unionists.
Corporate: Howard's List of Shame
ACTU President Shaharn Burrow runs through the litany of corporate collapses and down-sizes that have cut a swathe through the Australian community.
Campaign Diary: Week Four: The Battle Lines Drawn
It was a week that saw the leaders launch their campaigns, kiss lots of babies and battle for space with a Holy Jihad.
Industrial: Desperately Seeking Solutions
They might not call it 'industrial relations' in the spin of modern politics, but all the major parties have released plans that will affect the way we work over the next three years.
Economics: Manufacturing Prosperity
Neale Towart looks at the hidden debate of the election campaign - the degree of intervention government should take through Industry Policy.
History: War And Politics
The Conservatives are trying to wage war and win the election. The pundits say itís a tried and true recipe for electoral success. The 1940 federal poll suggests otherwise.
International: Globalising Labour
On the eve of the International Metalworkers Federation Congress general secretary Marcello Malentacchi argues all nations need to retain a manufacturing base.
Review: Security - Who Needs it?
What does it mean to be secure? Should we even need to ask? In his new book, Anthony Burke asks the tough questions.
Satire: Locksmith Promises "Greater Security" If Elected
A Melbourne locksmith has agreed to run for federal parliament, campaigning on the key issue of security.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005