It’s fascinating to watch the Coalition’s brilliant electioneering machine in action. One by one, it mops up the potential electoral troublespots. Kevin Rudd was ahead on education, so the Budget slings money at universities, allowing Peter Costello to call it the “real” education revolution. Industrial relations is the biggest electoral problem, so there’s now a new, softer variant, conveniently allowing the Government to legally advertise it all over again. (Sorry, I should say, allowing us to advertise it, since it’s being done with our money.) And now David Hicks, that favoured protest target of all on the left, whose treatment was beginning to appal even mainstream Australia, is now back in the homeland, safely tucked away in dinki-di Aussie jail where they serve dinki-di Aussie breakfasts, until after the election. Brilliant.
Thanks to the additional sentence, he’s going to remain locked down so tightly that Reuters could only get the blurriest of images (see the breakfast story linked above). No travelling around the country addressing rallies or appearances on Enough Rope for this enemy combatant.
And cynics might suggest that the $500,000 spent on hiring a private plane to ferry him home was purely to avoid a media scrum at the airport. A relatively cheap media-management solution, though, by Coalition standards. And a pity, because the media badly needs some new images of Hicks. I’ve gone with my personal favourite today, that dashing rocket launcher one, but of course the ocker blue singlet one has also had a mammoth workout.
I’m not going to get into the conspiracy theories over whether Hicks’ plea bargain and the timing of his Antipodean sentence was part of a sneaky deal with the American. Of course, this is unknowable, as it would be if it was a massive fix job. Let’s just say that the circumstances couldn’t have worked out better for the Government – a fairly lenient, but politically ideal, sentence.
The broader question, though, is whether the relatively neat resolution to this story will wash with voters on election day. If he’d still been in Guantanamo, you could imagine angry volunteers handing out flyers at every polling booth, urging people to vote for anyone but the Coalition to bring him home. That last-minute reminder of a situation that stuck in the craw of most Australians might have made a real difference with some swing voters. Now, that won’t happen, and those who’ve criticised the process have been robbed of the most emotive element of their argument. Hicks’ symbolic value as a catalyst of people’s anger over America’s handling of the War on Terror, and Australia’s compliance, has been substantially reduced. Since most people seem to be fairly comfortable with his receiving some degree of punishment for buddying up to the Taliban, some degree of justice appears to have finally been done.
And yet this brilliant resolution of the Hicks problem from the Government’s perspective, along with most the other long-term sources of dissatisfaction, may not be enough to win the election. And the Prime Minister admitted this today, no doubt as part of some clever strategy of painting himself as the underdog – and, as he’s been careful to do all year, appearing to be listening to the voters, so he can’t be painted as out of touch.
The election contest remains poised on a knife-edge, no matter what the polls say now, and will doubtless continue to prove unusually fascinating and unpredictable. If the Howard Government can keep chipping away at the issues that have rubbed voters up the wrong way, and meanwhile sow seeds of doubt about Kevin Rudd in the hope that the honeymoon ends just in time.
The whole Hicks escapade has been disgraceful, of course, with even the law under which he was charged highly dubious. But the whole Hicks family must be extremely happy today. David will doubtlessly be happy just to get out in nine months, and only too happy to comply with the control order. No-one, I imagine, would be more content to just stroll around in the fresh air, not bothering anyone, and resuming a very, very quiet life. He won’t want to go anywhere near the Taliban, or even Islam, again, you’d imagine. Although you could probably forgive him for not wearing orange again in a hurry.