COVER STORY: News Weekly
Howard's Coalition - fewer options left as election looms
, April 14, 2007
With a federal election no more than six months away, how can the Howard Government beat Labor's ever-popular Kevin Rudd?It is now within the six months range until the Federal election and the Howard Government has failed to get a handle on the Rudd Labor phenomenon.
If the Coalition wants to re-galvanise public opinion, it needs to make some dramatic policy gestures soon, possibly including some paring back of its unpopular WorkChoices laws.
It is a critical juncture in the election cycle because there will come a point very soon, after which any sudden change of broad policy will appear like panic.
Despite coming off recent peaks, Labor continues to dominate the major opinion polls and the trend line looks bad for the Government which has been well behind Labor since Kevin Rudd assumed the Opposition leadership.
And Kevin Rudd continues to hold up well in the key preferred Prime Minister stakes.Media-obsessed
The normally media-obsessed Mr Rudd has taken the tactic of reducing extended interviews where he risks being drawn on difficult issues.
Instead, he is adopting a release-and-move strategy of announcing new Labor policies or stunts, such as the recent "Climate Change Summit", and quickly moving on to another issue before they can be critically analysed.
Interestingly, the tactic is similar to that employed by John Howard when he was Opposition Leader in 1995.
Since the beginning of the year, Prime Minister Howard and his lieutenants have tried a series of tactics including a brutal assault on Mr Rudd's character, combined with fear campaigns on state Labor government plans for a higher GST and a Labor smash-and-grab raid on the Commonwealth Future Fund.
On the positive side, Mr Howard has tried to set the policy agenda on water with his $10 billion Murray-Darling plan, and with spending announcements on defence, aged care and, most recently, $200 million to save forests in Asia.
But, for one reason or another, the initiatives have fallen short of the mark.
Attacks on Mr Rudd's character and judgement were blunted by revelations of mistakes on the Government's side and the resignations of two ministers, Ian Campbell and Santo Santoro.
The Murray-Darling plan was clearly cobbled together by a few non-water experts in the PM's office, never costed by the Treasury, and details are still being thrashed out with the Victorian Government which refused to sign off on the deal.
And the parliamentary attacks on the GST and the Future Fund, led by Treasurer Peter Costello, have been so hyperbolic as to cause voter scepticism.
The Government, which introduced the unpopular 10 per cent tax, after promising not to do so, will have a hard time convincing voters that Labor is a bigger worry because the state premiers could band together to raise the tax to 17 per cent.
Mr Costello would have been far better to adopt a clinical approach to Labor's vague economic policies and take them apart slowly and methodically to expose their flaws.
He will now be relying on the May Budget to swing the focus back to the Government and to show the Coalition still has the imagination and the will to govern the nation.
The Coalition remains convinced that its economic credentials will win out in the end, and that the Australian people will never throw out a government that has delivered low unemployment and years of sustained growth.
Yet there is considerable uncertainty and anxiety about the WorkChoices laws which, over time, place greater emphasis on individual bargaining between employer and employee.
Moving rapidly towards an American-style system, where benefits such as overtime, holiday pay, penalties and meal breaks are negotiated away, creates a high degree of uncertainty about the future when the economy may not be so buoyant.
Despite denials to the contrary, the issue played a major part in the failure of the Liberal Party to make inroads into the Labor majority at the recent New South Wales state election.
Mr Howard believes the changes will benefit the nation over the long-term and is reluctant to take a major step backwards.
However, some "fine-tuning" and some categorical assurances now that there will be no further revolution in the workplace during the next term could go some way to calming voter concern.