by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Canberra Observed: PM's "body surf" swamps ALP
, October 21, 2000
The Federal Opposition is suffering a serious malaise which, if not arrested quickly, is likely to do damage to its already fragile position in the opinion polls. Recent polls, which are deceptive mid-term anyway, show the Beazley-led Labor Party either neck and neck or narrowly leading the Government, even after the biggest tax overhaul in post-war history.
In fact, if John Howard went to an early election now he would surely win. The weight of incumbency, Labor's erratic policy formulation, and niggling doubts about Kim Beazley's leadership qualities would tip the balance in favour of the Government.
Since World War II there have been 21 national elections, but only three Prime Ministers have been thrown out of office (if you count caretaker Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser as having been re-elected in 1975).
Given the Australian electorate's reluctance to dismiss national governments, it is hardly likely that it would risk the unknown of Labor when most economic indicators are superficially favourable and the Opposition has refused to spell out even in general terms how it would govern the country.
The Labor Party has not been able to make the adjustment from its relentless pre-GST scare campaign, and the smooth introduction of the new tax system has left it shell-shocked and in a policy vacuum.
The party has decided to ditch its anti-GST rhetoric and the word "rollback" has not passed the lips of a Labor front-bencher since John Della Bosca's spectacular intervention in the debate. But this has left it without the easy way of surfing into government.
The Coalition is not a popular government in the same way as, say, that of Bob Hawke's administration in its early days. Nevertheless, people are beginning to show a clear acknowledgement of the Government's handling of the economy, and, worse for the Labor Party, of John Howard's style of leadership.
The different styles and tactics of the two leaders were exemplified by the way they handled the Olympics. After all the pre-Olympic scandals of IOC officials and politicians on the Olympic gravy train, Beazley made a calculated decision to stay away at least initially and watch the event like most other Australians from the comfort of his lounge room.
Howard went the other extreme visiting dozens of events, watching the shooting, basking in the golden afterglow of Australia's sporting heroes. His participation verged on overkill.
Yet one respected Labor observer privately described the image of Prime Minister Howard being "body surfed" by Australia's Olympians as a "terrifying image". The senior MP said it symbolised a grudging admiration and respect for a leader who, despite his shortcomings of being conservative, old-fashioned and stubborn, was proving to be in touch with the aspirations of the populace.
Labor has always known that the longer John Howard was in office the more difficult it would be to unseat him. Images like Howard's body surfing can send a powerful and long-lasting message to the mind of the electorate. Take Al Gore's convention kiss - more memorable and potent than any words the US Vice-President has ever spoken.
Of course, the Olympics were an ephemeral event, but they helped project Howard as a leader who was like them in their patriotism and love of sport. Beazley did not help his own cause post-Olympics by declaring Athens should be the permanent home of the Games, while loosely hinting that he would be happy to have New South Wales Labor comrade, the Hon Michael Knight, on his own frontbench.
The weirdness of the statements were a further indication of Beazley being, as they say in American politics, "off-message". Then, in a bid to turn the public's attention away from sport back to politics, Beazley's first post-Olympics policy foray was to "announce" Labor's bid for a Republic by 2010!
Hardly bold in its vision, it was a case of going back to an issue most Australians would like to forget about - at least for a while. And the six-nil drubbing the pro-Republic forces received at the referendum should have indicated to Labor strategists that this is never going to be a vote winner outside the trendy Labor heartland.
Adding to the Opposition Leader's woes has been news that Beazley's shadow finance spokesman, Lindsay Tanner, has been canvassing with merchant bankers the idea of splitting Telstra in two when Labor wins office. This has given the Government ammunition to hammer Labor for its hypocrisy over its public declaration of "no further privatisation of Telstra upon winning office".
Given Beazley's inability to score any points politically over the past few months, it is even more surprising that behind the scenes Labor has been working hard to prepare itself for an early poll. Beazley has ordered all shadow ministers to wind up their policy work in case Howard has a sudden rush of blood, and calls an early poll.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly hosed down speculation of a pre-Christmas poll, and appears to be enjoying the job too much to even think about risking an election. There is also no trigger yet for a double dissolution.
The odds against a poll are still long, but Beazley appears to be doing everything in his power to bring one on.