CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Why voters have turned on John Howard
, November 10, 2007
The stark political reality is that Mr Howard's special relationship with the Australian electorate was broken by the introduction of WorkChoices, which sought to impose a US-style industrial relations system on the country.The Australian public has been subject to the longest election campaign in recent memory - a campaign which virtually started from the time Kevin Rudd was elected Labor Opposition leader in December last year.
Not surprisingly, voters appear weary and uninterested in the official contest and, if the polls are to be believed, may have made up their minds a long time ago.
This could be one explanation for John Howard's failure to gain any significant traction in the first half of the election campaign proper.
Another could be the remarkable similarity between the two parties as a result of Kevin Rudd's me-too "I'm a fiscal conservative" tactics.Mr Rudd's image
In many photos Mr Rudd, with his greying hair, round face and glasses, even looks like a younger version of his conservative rival.
The Coalition is taking a lot of comfort from the fact that 16 seats are a huge ask for an Opposition, and on paper this is true. But they forget two things.
First, the Coalition lost almost this many seats after it proposed the GST in the 1998 election.
Secondly, pundits forget that the ALP went backwards at the last election, courtesy of Mark Latham's disastrous election campaign, including his decision in the final week to side with trendy environmentalists rather than stand by timber-workers and their families.
Labor lost five seats at that election, and thousands of Labor voters abandoned the party, leaving it with its lowest primary vote in history.
So the real political landscape should be considered pre-Rudd, and a margin of, say, 10 seats rather than 16.
The election of Rudd as Labor leader was a catalyst for hundreds of thousands of swinging voters to come back to Labor after years of distrust, ambivalence, and boredom with Kim Beazley, Simon Crean and Mark Latham.
Mr Rudd's success has been based on two simple strategies - he tapped into deep voter disenchantment over the introduction of WorkChoices, and he successfully convinced voters that there would be a smooth, even seamless, transition from Howard to himself.
Throughout that time John Howard has not been able to find a way of slowing the Rudd juggernaut, and the election campaign appears to be no different.
The $34 billion in tax cuts announced on the second day of the campaign by John Howard and Peter Costello stole the headlines for the first week; but a similar offer from Labor a few days later negated the impact of the announcement.
The Coalition followed up the tax cuts with a $500 utilities allowance to ease cost-of-living pressures for pensioners, carers and, for the first time, Australia's 700,000 disability pensioners.
Few would argue with the merits of either, although economically putting more cash out into an already heated economy seems to undermine the economically responsible line the Government pushes.
It is surprising that even at this late juncture the PM and his Treasurer would actually believe that throwing money at the electorate would be enough to sway voters.
It didn't work at the last Budget, so why would it work now?
The Government, blinded by belief in its superior economic credentials, does not seem to understand that Mr Howard's long run of success as Prime Minister has been based largely on cultural rather than economic issues.
The modern electorate expects governments to manage the budget sensibly, and they know enough about economics to realise that the boom we are experiencing has as much to do with China and the United States as what happens in the Treasury building in Canberra.
The stark political reality is that Mr Howard's special relationship with the Australian electorate was broken by the introduction of WorkChoices, which sought to impose a US-style industrial relations system on the country.
The goal was in part further economic reform, but had the added appeal of eradicating the union movement and the Labor Party's support base.
But WorkChoices was also an unwitting attempt at a massive cultural change, rubbing out weekends, making night-shift the equivalent of day, and forcing individuals as young as 18 to negotiate with bosses and corporations on a one-on-one basis about their pay and conditions.Never recovered
An obscene amount of taxpayer-funded advertising over recent months has failed to sway voters of the virtues of the new system, and the Government has never recovered in the polls.
The only way Mr Howard could ever win this election would be to convince voters that he shares their cultural values and to convince them that Labor, despite what Kevin Rudd says, does not.
Mr Howard has often said the Australian people have always "got it right" during federal elections - an admission from a conservative and true democrat that an occasional change is not necessarily a bad thing.
Maybe the Australian people are asking whether it is time to see whether Kevin Rudd has single-handedly changed the culture of the Labor Party.