The Coalition would not be at all happy with the headline on the front cover of today’s SMH. Yesterday was the showpiece Prime Ministerial address at the Federal Liberal Council, where John Howard had his chance to lay out the ideas everyone hoped would catapult him to a remarkable fifth election win. He seeded some slogans we’ll probably see a lot more of before election day, and, crucially, unveiled a new climate change-based scare campaign designed to turn around the perception that Labor is the party that’s hip to global warming. And what did the Herald report this morning? “Voters dread Costello switch.”
Yep, that old leadership genie is out of the bottle again. The genie that the ALP tried to unleash last time around with posters of Costello on election day, but which failed as voters decided they preferred the prospect of the Treasurer to Mark Latham. But Kevin Rudd’s no Latham, at least in the eyes of the electorate. (Although there are still those who miss the swashbuckling Latham days.) And the prospect of Costello might still prove to be electoral poison when we go to the polls.
The story was based on “internal Labor Party polling, obtained by the Herald.” Oh really? And how, one wonders, did such a damaging story fall into the hands of this newspaper at the precise time when the Coalition were looking for favourable media coverage? Bit of a coincidence, wouldn’t you say? I’ve no idea what the source was, but the timing made me hark back to an Alan Ramsey column dating all the way back to, oh, Saturday, when he revealed how John Faulkner’s office had leaked the “lying rodent” story to Laurie Oakes. As he put it, the story “knocked Howard’s start to the campaign right off balance.” A touch of deja vu, perhaps?
Not entirely. Because other dynamics in this campaign couldn’t be more different. Rudd is no Latham, as I said before, but also, it increasingly seems that Howard 2007 isn’t a patch on Howard 2004. Last time, Latham was the economic bogeyman, a pitch which proved devastatingly effective. But, just as Peter Debnam’s ads passed over Iemma and tried to scare people about Tripodi, Sartor and Costa, John Howard has given up on Kevin Rudd and tried to paint Peter Garrett as the man who can’t be trusted with the economy. He talked about a “Garrett recession“, and pointed to the shadow environment minister’s one-time comments about taking all cars off the road and shutting down the coal-fired power stations by 2020. Just as he pleaded to the Australian public to leave him in charge of their interest rates last time, he’s now portraying himself as the man who can defend our economy from rabid Greenies.
Boy, he wasn’t lying when he said he didn’t have a rabbit to pull out of his hat. Talk about a drought – I can’t remember, in all John Howard’s time in office, a less convincing attempt at scaremongering. Does anyone, in all honesty, believe that Peter Garrett will take the cars off the road? Does anyone actually believe he will even have the capacity, let alone the inclination, to plunge the nation into a recession?
Unlike Latham, he isn’t the leader. He isn’t the man we’re thinking about electing – or who, by contrast with the unpopular Costello, might take over. If the best the Prime Minister can do at his showpiece Federal Council is try and dust up a relatively junior shadow minister, who’s seen by much of the nation as a great bloke, then he might as well hang up his Akubra and head up to Hawk’s Nest now.
And this shows how much the political agenda has changed in the past year. At the moment, Howard is fighting the election on climate change. In a Karl Rove-style manoeuvre, he’s trying to take the ALP on where it’s strongest, as the party that is clearly more in touch with the sudden popular concern about climate change. But to do the Rove manoeuvre relies on an effective smear campaign, like the Swift Boat veterans or the whispers about John McCain’s sexual history. If you can’t land a blow on your opponent – not an underling like Garrett – the tactic can backfire massively.
Peter Hartcher’s response today quickly dispatched the Howard argument to the boundary, so I won’t dive into the detail again. What fascinates me about this situation is just how out of touch these comments make Prime Minister seem. His famous antennae, that saw him pick exactly the right theme to align himself with the values of the voters he needed on four previous occasions, seem to be faltering.
Primarily, it’s a problem of incumbency. After so many years of inaction on climate change, after ridiculing Labor’s pro-Kyoto stance for most of the past decade, it’s almost impossible to turn around and paint yourself as serious on climate change. George Bush hasn’t been able to do it, and nor can John Howard. And Kevin Rudd has the advantage of being a new broom, who just sounds like he gets it.
If we really are moving into a period where climate change dominates politics for much of the next decade – and it’d be brave to predict that the current level of interest is a flash in the pan, at a time when even Rupert Murdoch is on the bandwagon – the man the Coalition needs up front is not John Howard or Peter Costello, but Malcolm Turnbull. He’s associated himself with this crusade for years, even when no-one else in the Government seemed interested. He’s younger, he’s clever, and he seems to be committed enough to the environment to take the problem seriously. Coupled to which, he has enormous economic credibility because of his own success. And that’s John Howard’s biggest problem on this issue. Whereas he seemed utterly sincere when he vowed to protect us from unwanted arrivals, it just doesn’t seem like he actually cares about climate change. It seems like he’s trying to pretend to win an election, and it isn’t convincing anyone.
The concept of a Garrett recession just isn’t going to wash with an electorate that’s increasingly worried about global warming. Right now, the thing that’s scaring us in not John Howard’s doomsday scenario, but Al Gore’s.