Finally, after nearly a year since Kevin Rudd was elected and it all began in earnest, we have an end date for the seemingly interminable campaigning: 24 November. On that night, the cycle will begin again, either with the same old leadership or Labor’s new old leader, who offers almost identical policies but has a much snazzier website.
I’ve been looking forward to this election since Rudd’s arrival. Sure, I’m a politics nerd – heck, I found some interest even in the Beazley contests. But Rudd is a real contender, finally Howard’s match when it comes to sheer political professionalism. He rarely puts a foot, or even a hair, wrong. Watching him on the 7.30 Report the other night, I was struck by his remarkable capacity to string soundbites and talking points together so seamlessly that they almost sound like actual human conversation. He never ums or ahs – in sharp distinction to John Howard – and if he’s interrupted midway through a sentence, he simply takes a moment and then starts off where he was, delivering the perfect soundbite in such a way that it will clip nicely into the evening news.
In short, if an evil genius were to design a political robot, it would probably look a lot like Kevin Rudd. Okay, so perhaps not physically – very few people would choose to outfit themselves quite so prissily. But in terms of its almost flawless message discipline, it could do worse than derive its programming directly from Rudd’s own neurones.
Even Rudd’s policies could have been designed by computer. And the program is simple. Take the Government’s positions, test them with focus groups and tweak the formula ever so slightly so that they’ll like them just that little bit more than Howard’s version. And, crucially, still deliver nearly everything that the original policy that appealed to Coalition voters. Kevin07 is very much a subtle evolution, not revolution – whatever he may have chosen to term his education policy.
His tax plan, which was just released as I was finishing this column, is the perfect example. Rudd will deliver nearly all of the enormous tax cuts Howard announced at the start of the campaign, but hold a little back from the very top income earners – who probably weren’t going to vote for him anyway. He’ll use that $3 billion or so to give families a tax credit for investment on education, and to reduce waiting times for elective surgery.
See what he did? He knows that most voters are into health and education, as long as they don’t have to pay for it with high taxes. So he slightly skews Howard’s package to invest a small amount in these areas, so he can claim he’s more in touch with working families than the Coalition. Another of Rudd’s favourite soundbites that we’ve been hearing since he was elected last December is that Howard is a “clever politician”. But when it comes to tricky political calculations, Rudd’s evidently no slouch either.
And that, ultimately, is what’s starting to infuriate me in 2007, a mere week into the campaign. It’s all tinkering at the margins. Neither party has any real ideas to make our society better, or fairer, or nicer. They just want to push our buttons so we’ll elect them. Principle has long gone from the Labor Party, except when it comes to delivering for the unions that fund and staff it. And John Howard achieved his wildest political dreams a year ago, and hasn’t had anything new to say since. Well, except on reconciliation. So he hasn’t had anything credible and new to say since.
I’m left harking back to the days when there were radical differences between the parties, and bold ideas. Sure, there were some disasters. But look at something like Medicare, which is so popular that neither party dare touch it. No-one would even attempt to create something like that now. All they’d do is offer the status quo, or the status quo packaged with trendy buzzwords and a little Web 2.0 pizzazz. And sure, this reflects that Australia is an affluent place for most of us. But not all of us. But you’ll never hear about that during this campaign. Not while there are $34 billion in tax cuts to distribute to people who already have it all. Sorry, or $31 billion if we vote Labor. An enormous difference.
When John Howard was elected in 1996, his slogan was “For All Of Us”. Of course, that isn’t how it panned out. But back in the day, politicians used to at least pretend they wanted to help life’s unfortunates. Not any more. Now, the Coalition is Going For Growth, and Labor is following closely behind them. But it doesn’t say much for our society that our grandest aspiration is a little more for ourselves.