A column about the Ruddslide

Fresh ideas. New Leadership. Working families. Economic conservative. Education revolution. When it comes to this election, to use Kevin Rudd’s favourite start to any sentence, these are the buzzwords that will finally get boost Labor back into office after eleven years in the wilderness. Rudd knows that his pitch is electoral dynamite, and that’s why he mentions his buzzwords constantly, and that’s why he’s going to become Prime Minister on Saturday.

It may not be quite that easy, of course. Labor still has to win 16 seats, which mightn’t be quite as easy as it seems when you read the polls. Perhaps by the time you read this, John Howard will have found the magical Rudd-killing bullet that has eluded him for so long. Perhaps there’s another sex scandal like the Scores one out there, but less laughably innocent. Perhaps the highly sophisticated computer programme inside Kevin Rudd’s head will crash under the pressure. Or perhaps, just perhaps, people will start to like Peter Costello.

Okay, so that won’t happen. But I never would have assumed that the result would seem so assured just days before the election. Everyone assumed that the previously infallible homing-beacon instincts of John Howard would have focussed in on the precise argument he needed to make to – well, if not defeat Kevin Rudd’s challenge, then at least make it a real contest. But if you believe the polls, it’s absolutely game over. As ugly as both the idea and the word used to express it may be, we are on the verge of a ‘Ruddslide’.

Unfortunately, dear readers of The Glebe, none of your lower-house votes will make a jot of difference, since this newspaper’s catchment area votes for left-wing parties so staunchly that even Mark Latham got your support. But you can rejoice in the knowledge that for the first time in quite a while, the rest of Australia agrees with you as well. Note that I can’t say ‘agrees with us’, you understand, because due to my work with the ABC, I am of course entirely neutral in this election. I just want the winner on the day to be democracy.

So what kind of Australia can we expect under Kevin Rudd? Well, one very much like John Howard’s. Or so we’ve been led to believe by Labor’s extraordinarily disciplined campaign, which has doggedly removed every point of difference between the parties that has any chance of proving electorally damaging for Kevin Rudd. Principle has taken second place – Rudd is all about politics, and cleverly so. His focus groups have found that calling “Mr Howard” a “clever politician” goes down well – but that he’s delivered the message makes him the one who’s been the really clever politician in this campaign.

Where previously John Howard has successfully portrayed himself as more in touch with the public’s values, this time the electorate cares about issues that are traditionally Labor ones – things like education, industrial relations, the environment and, perhaps most importantly, a less economically tough approach to government as interest rates rise. In this context, the public simply isn’t interested in scare campaigns about the unions or even cash handouts. It wants to feel reassured, and that’s exactly what Kevin Rudd’s soothingly nerdy persona provides.

One of the many failed scare campaigns that the Coalition has tried involves Peter Garrett saying that Labor would just change everything after the election – the infamous “short and jocular” conversation with Steve Price. Well, let’s hope Labor does change everything after the election, because otherwise, based on the policies they’ve put forward so far, it will scarcely have been worth voting them in. As John Howard himself knows from 1996, you rarely win office by promoting radical change. You win it by portraying the government as out of touch – his slogan against Keating was “for all of us”, which amazingly allowed the ALP to be portrayed as the party of the elites. So Rudd has been stressing continuity while showing that he has a better understanding of where “working families” are at.

But Labor will overturn many things that lefties love to hate – WorkChoices, of course, but also long-term bugbears like abolishing full-fee degrees and ratifying Kyoto. Having run to the centre to win the election, we can expect to see Rudd moving a little further to the left, just as Howard eventually returned to his ideological roots. But he’ll learn from his predecessor, and not go far enough to scare anyone. Labor had to create its own conservative, battler-courting version of John Howard to defeat the Coalition’s one, and once he’s in, he’ll probably prove even harder to dislodge.