by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Canberra observed - Beazley falters in pre-election " phoney war"
, June 30, 2001
What can be deduced from the peculiar manoeuvrings and tactics which have been conducted by the major parties over the past two months for what has become the phantom early election?
The behind-the-scenes shadow games and false leads occured in anticipation that an early poll would be held in the first two weeks of July.
This is despite the fact that the Queen is expected to visit Australia later in the year, that Mr Howard is due to visit George W. Bush in the United States, and that the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is due to be held in Brisbane in October.
The Labor Party under Kim Beazley believed the July election was a certainty, and the Canberra press gallery was all too easily sucked into the game.Strategy
The theory was that the big-spending and carefully-targeted Budget would provide the "bounce" the Government needed in the polls, and that the Opposition would be wrong-footed by the calling of a snap election.
Earlier this month some Government ministers pointedly told their departments that they want no new policy briefs after mid-July, and this instruction has been passed on to the Labor Party by the public servants.
In late May, Queenslanders Con Sciacca and Wayne Swan also passed on information to the Labor leadership team that the Queensland Liberal Party had made bookings with Australia Post for mass mailouts in June and early July.
As a consequence the Labor Party went into internal hyperdrive around that time, with Mr Beazley ordering his leadership team to complete the finishing touches to policies, make sure there were no black holes, and compelling the party machine to run through election strategies with its advertising people.
Advertising campaigns on the anniversary of the GST were booked and then cancelled by the party's national secretary, Geoff Walsh.
The conviction that July 7 or 14 (the date of the Aston by-election) would be election day came from the heart of the office of the Opposition Leader, and the jumpiness of Beazley as Opposition leader is not a good pointer to Beazley PM.
On the one hand Field-Marshal Beazley may be correct in keeping his troops primed and ready for battle, but his recent behaviour has shades of the infamous Fiji Shadow Cabinet meeting early on in his leadership when he ordered a mock shadow "war Cabinet" to discuss the alternative government's plans in case Australia's Defence Forces had to set sail to the troubled islands.
The Coalition was happy to encourage Labor's paranoia. Liberal Party officials even went to the extent of having the lights at Menzies House - the party's headquarters in Canberra - turned on over the critical weekend when an election was supposed to be called, as well as driving in and out all day to feign activity.
John Howard kept saying he intended to run his full term as Prime Minister, but always mischievously qualifying it with words such as "at this stage".
Why would Mr Howard be happy to keep Labor on a knife-edge like this? The first explanation is that Mr Howard was always keeping his options open, and that if July looked a possibility he would still have seized the opportunity.
The prerogative of calling an election is one of the most important tactical advantages a Prime Minister enjoys and Mr Howard is sensible to keep every option open.
The second explanation is that keeping the early election speculation running prevents any chance of a Costello challenge.
Even this late in the day, some backbenchers who believed the Government was heading for defeat could start thinking that the only possible chance the Government might have of saving itself would be a last-minute switch of leaders.
But by keeping low-level election speculation humming Mr Howard could stymie any challenge, because disunity prior to a poll would guarantee the party's political death.
The third explanation is that Mr Howard hopes that the constant pre-election pressure on Labor, which has been considerable, might result in Labor coming unstuck before the real election. He believes Mr Beazley does not respond well to pressure and that sooner or later the cracks will appear in the facade the Opposition has built, which involves cruising into office on the back of government unpopularity rather than providing a detailed policy plan of its own.
The effect of all this is that, now that the July election is off, Labor actually believes it is an absolute certainty to win government. It was so convinced the early poll was "on", and that this poll has now been postponed because of poor post-Budget polling for the Coalition, that even its most pessimistic senior figures now believe the Coalition is simply delaying the date of its inevitable defeat.
Whether that complacency is dangerous or not is too early to tell, but the Coalition will go into the election as the underdog.