I have a happy habit of covering bizarre and often confounding elections. One of the more recent involved elephants delivering the ballot boxes, and a victor who not only did not expect to win, but had no great desire to do so.
I still bear the scars of India 2004 to boot - the tiniest of bald patches. For in celebration at Sonia Gandhi’s unexpected victory, supporters set off a volley of firecrackers, one of which briefly ignited my bouffant.
Then there was the Afghanistan presidential election later that year, where most of the main presidential candidates boycotted the poll by lunchtime on Election Day. They did so in protest at the delible properties of the supposedly indelible ink brought in to prevent electoral fraud.
And what of those pesky pregnant chads from Campaign 2000 in America, the limp and dangly fragments of paper which helped make election night drag on for a month.
For me, though, this election most resembles Britain in 1997. There are the distinct similarities, of course, between Tony Blair and Kevin Rudd: the fiscal conservatism, the muscular Christianity, the promise of generational change, the penchant for vapid slogans (for ‘New Labour’ read ‘New Leadership,’ Rudd’s variant), the policies tailored for Middle Britain/Australia, the courtship of Rupert Murdoch and his stable of opinion-forming newspapers, and even the presence of a careerist wife whom the press appears keen to target.
To my mind, there are similarities, as well, between the then British Prime Minister John Major and John Howard, which go beyond their love of cricket. The village green, the cosy local pub and the steepled church. Substitute cold beer for warm, and Mr. Howard would paint much the same similarly nostalgic picture of Australia that Mr Major did of Britain. Both politicians seem to prefer things as they were rather than as they are. Both might be described as status quo leaders.
Not only is there a palpable mood for change across Australia, as there was in the dying days of John Major’s premiership in Britain, but a strong sense that it does not require any great risk, especially when it comes to the management of the economy.
In many ways, this should be a classic ‘feel good’ election. With unemployment at a 33-year low, and the stock market at record highs, the strength of the economy would normally be enough to win the government another term in office. But five hikes in interest rates since the 2004 election have undercut the government’s economic message.
John Howard and his Treasurer Peter Costello face another problem. Because of the resources boom, which has been powered by the rise of energy–hungry China and India, many Australians have come to believe that the growing economy has an in-built momentum all of its own - that it is providential and almost preordained.
Worse still for the government, at the very moment when Mssrs Howard and Costello desperately need to take credit for the success of the economy they have scored something of an own goal. By reminding voters that the interest rate hikes were decided by the Reserve Bank of Australia, an autonomous central bank, rather than the Treasury, it has reinforced the impression that much of the running of the economy lies beyond the realm of government.
By kicking off his campaign with the promise of massive A$34 billion tax cuts, Mr. Howard managed to dent Labor’s lead in the polls. But Mr Rudd’s response, to promise $A31 billion cuts himself, helped reopen the election-winning gap, even if it did risk the charge of political plagiarism.
It also enabled Mr. Rudd to credibly argue during the first (and probably only) televised debate that he is an ‘economic conservative’. Tony Blair made a similar case ten years ago, and it helped win his resurgent Labour Party not just a victory but a landslide.
John Howard, a political escapologist’s political escapologist if ever there was one, may yet mount a comeback. If that happens, this blog will chart it day by day, and its author will have just covered his most confounding election to date.