CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
New tactics needed to handle Latham challenge
, February 28, 2004
Two alternate views on this election year emerged in the days after John Howard's extraordinary backdown on the generous superannuation entitlements given to federal politicians.
In the professional reading of the political tea leaves, they could not have been more different.
The first one was that Mr Howard was at his political best, taking a bold, brave, even cunning move to deny Mark Latham political oxygen on an issue the public were both clearly unhappy about and who were never going to be turned around on.
Tony Abbott, one of the senior ministers who was "hung out to dry" by the PM in defending the generous super scheme, fell into this category declaring that he had "never admired the PM more" after the turnaround.Clever tactic
Mr Abbott had plenty of support in the media as well with commentators declaring that the Prime Minister had cleverly eliminated a political negative, pulling a soapbox from beneath Mr Latham in the process.
The second view was that Mr Howard had basically lost the plot, that he panicked, was caught on the hop and was "reacting" to Mark Latham, and that he had become the prey rather than the predator.
This was the view of Bronwyn Bishop, an MP who despises any sign of leadership weakness or vacillation.
This view was shared by media commentators as well, with one prominent Sydney-based columnist prophesying that the backdown was the beginning of the end for John Howard.
Which of the political situations turns out to be correct will certainly determine Mr Howard's future.
In fact, there could be elements of both because Mr Latham has upset the strategy of the Government in ways the Coalition did not predict. Comparisons are being made with the lead-up to the 2001 election when Mr Howard took drastic measures to turn around the Government's poor standing in the electorate.
At that time the Government was in trouble on several fronts - mainly because of the introduction of the GST and the associated paperwork suddenly imposed on small businesses.
After the Ryan by-election shock, Mr Howard set about removing all the "negatives" which were dragging down the Government's standing including the double tax on petrol.
The Government also brazenly gave pensioners cash handouts to try and placate them for being upset by the GST.
At that time though the problems were all of the Government's own making, Mr Howard was prepared to alter his strategy because he recognised the Government had made mistakes.
This time he is actually responding to Mr Latham's policy suggestions, giving a new and young Opposition leader valuable credibility and respect.Substantial opponent
John Howard's Latham tactic number one
was slow character assassination, lampooning and simply to wait for the inevitable blow-up or self-immolation.
As Latham has emerged as a more surefooted and substantial opponent that policy was junked.
Howard's Latham tactic number two
was to expose him as "Mr Flip Flop", as a politician of contradictions, and about faces.
In the light of the super backflip that too has been made as good as useless.
Mr Howard was annoyed that his much-trumpeted Free Trade Alliance with the United States was gazumped by the super fiasco. He is now hoping that this will become the main policy issue to put the Government back squarely in the public's eye.Tactic number three
is to show that Latham is anti-American, anti-free trade, and anti-business.
But again this has potential dangers for the Government. Trade agreements (both the good and bad ones) have never been big vote winners, while turning away blocks of voters who feel dudded.
Overall the benefits are hard to define, they are long-term, and, in the case of the proposed and as yet unseen US free trade agreement, are sometimes literally decades away from bearing fruit.
Certainly some businesses, such as tuna fishermen from Port Lincoln in South Australia, will be jumping for joy. But for the rest of Australia their vote is determined by something much closer to home.