Budget sets stage for election campaignby News WeeklyNews Weekly
, June 2, 2001
Peter Costello has bought the Howard Government time, but not an election victory in his sixth and possibly last federal budget.
Repairing the damage to its key constituencies by its generosity to pensioners and self-funded retirees only provides the foundation for an election campaign, but is clearly not the killer document designed to get it over the line.
The only possible conclusions which could be drawn from the political strategy behind the budget are that the Government has run out of ideas, or that it is carefully holding fire on its future plans for the election proper.
If it is the former, the Howard Government is clearly terminal and heading for an electoral disaster, and is only intent on avoiding the mistake Jeff Kennett made in Victoria when he passed on a healthy surplus to his political opponents.
If it is the latter, we can expect John Howard to start rolling out a series of policy initiatives over the next few months to steal the march on Kim Beazley.
Rather than a forward-looking budget which provides the Government's medium-term vision for the next few years, the economic road map for the year ahead appeared to be more intent on winning back the heartland while making absolutely sure there is as little as possible in the cupboard for the Labor Opposition to raid in its election campaign.
The secondary motive certainly appeared to work, with senior Labor figures including Simon Crean clearly stung by the disappearance of Costello's great surplus.
Labor's already detailed but hidden policies will now have to be ditched or Labor ministers-in-waiting will have to find money from cuts to other portfolio areas, and spell them out in the campaign.
The early election spruikers, who have been predicting an early poll all year, are likely to be proved wrong about a July election.
Unless John Howard has a sudden and uncharacteristic rush of blood to the head, the poll will be held toward the end of the year to give the Government more time to win back votes, that is - after the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, and after the Government has begun to strip away Kim Beazley's new clothes.
Realistic Coalition strategists know that the Federal Government will have to win seats at the coming election, and actually improve on the primary vote achieved at the 1998 poll.
The Coalition is likely to lose some seats, whatever the outcome, with Victoria still looking a problem for the Government, and will therefore have to take seats from Labor in other states to keep its slender majority.
In other words, Howard needs to trounce Beazley in the campaign, not simply hold the line.
To do this the Government will have to come up with some bold policies which will capture the imagination of the populace and gazump the Labor Party's bland "knowledge nation" vision.
The next few months will perhaps be the greatest test of Howard's Prime Ministership - not for his leadership or campaigning abilities, or for his qualities of perserverence and determination, which have already been tested and proven.
The test will be whether Howard, after six years in office, can remake his Government and offer the nation a new vision of exactly where the Liberal Party wants to take the country over the coming decade, with or without him at the helm.