COVER STORY: News Weekly
CANBERRA OBSERVED: Kevin Rudd still in front
, May 26, 2007
It is going to be tough for John Howard to win a fifth term in government.With up to six months until the election, John Howard looks to be facing his toughest election since winning power in 1996.
Behind in the opinion polls, having brought down a Budget which has failed to produce a bounce in support, and facing an Opposition which is at its most disciplined in years, Mr Howard knows he is in for the fight of his political life.
While Mark Latham enjoyed a similar honeymoon to Kevin Rudd's, there was always a surreal side to his period as leader, and no one was surprised when he blew up in the last week of the campaign.
However, this time, despite having just as short a period in the Parliament, Kevin Rudd has managed to convince voters he is a politician of substance and ability.
Mr Rudd is also a different style of leader, less antagonistic, a quick learner and someone who has carefully studied and copied Mr Howard's political style and tactics.Budget plan
Peter Costello's big-spending Budget was meant to turn the Government's fortunes around, or at least put a floor under its bad ratings in the opinion polls.
It was carefully crafted to deliver tax cuts to almost everyone, while allocating $5 billion as a down-payment for the university education of future young Australians.
It contained a host of other incentives for voters, including tuition vouchers for children falling behind in their education, cash for apprentices, and help for pensioners to pay their utility bills.
And it was well received.
According to the first major opinion poll published after the Budget, the vast majority of voters said it was a good Budget and assessed that it made them better off.
Commentators variously described Mr Costello's 12th Budget as politically clever and economically safe because it spent up where it was needed, but still kept the Budget strongly in surplus.
And yet voters said they still preferred Labor and Kevin Rudd.
Clearly, the electorate is still suspicious about the Government's unpopular WorkChoices revolution, and Mr Howard's decision to back down on some of the harsher aspects of the policy has not filtered through to voters.
Mr Howard has sensibly decided to protect workers earning less than $75,000 a year from losing out in negotiations for individual contracts.
The back-down will go a long way to negating an ACTU/Labor scare campaign in the coming election.
But Mr Howard is battling on other fronts.
He has to overcome the “It's Time” factor - eleven years in Government is a long time, and it is easy to forget Mr Howard was in Government five years before George W. Bush won the presidency and a year before Tony Blair became British Prime Minister.
He also has to overcome the age factor - Mr Rudd is 49 while the PM is 66.
A series of government mishaps and miscalculations, including the ongoing and increasingly unpopular Iraq War, take their toll on any long-term administration.
Mr Rudd has also tried to portray himself as a social and now a fiscal conservative, most recently launching an advertising campaign to highlight Labor's economic credentials for government.
Both claims have incensed the Howard Government, but so far Mr Rudd has managed to avoid any serious attack on his credibility.
Nevertheless, there is still a long period to go and it is far too early to write off the Government.
Labor is vulnerable too on a number of fronts, such as deputy Opposition leader Julia Gillard and her hardline industrial policy.
The party also has a warm and fuzzy environmental policy to cut greenhouse gases by 60 per cent by 2050, but this will inevitably hit thousands of jobs in the coal and power industry and drive up electricity prices dramatically.
If the Coalition is successful in offering an alternative plan to dealing with the in-vogue climate change issue, and exposes the holes in Labor, a lot of voters will have second thoughts about signing Labor's open chequebook on the environment.
But no one could argue with the proposition that it is going to be tough for John Howard to win a fifth term in government.