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The Howard Effect

Nick Bryant | 09:11 UK time, Thursday, 19 August 2010

Narrowness continues to prevail right up until the final hours of this election, as marginals continued to be bombarded and tiny pockets of voters get to decide the result. Consider this lead story on ABC News this morning, which reports on how Julia Gillard carved out a victory over Tony Abbott in a voter forum at the Brisbane Broncos Leagues club. It was based on a sampling of just over 150 voters, with 83 saying they preferred the Prime Minister and 75 saying they liked what they heard from Tony Abbott. Again, a tiny cohort of voters come to be vastly empowered. If four people had changed their mind, the story would have been very different.

howard_ap304.jpgTrue, it's the same elsewhere in the political Anglo-sphere. Voters in the US have complained for years about the disproportionate influence of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire at the start of the nominating process. Florida and Ohio get a huge say come the presidential election. British politicians do not spend much time outside marginals in the course of a general election campaign. But this Australian election has been extremely narrow and insular.

Wollemi makes a very good point. Both Gillard and Abbott are "novive leaders" and have sought to play it safe by focusing on narrowly-targeted campaigns. I particularly liked Adrian's advice as well. If you come to Australia, live in a marginal, because you will always get the attention of politicians, and much of their largesse.

I'll blog on Friday with some final thoughts. But I wanted your views on how former Prime Ministers have influenced the race. We have had Malcolm Fraser unleashing his patrician fury on the modern-day Liberal party. Paul Keating has mauled Bob Hawke. The Silver Bodgie was then the main warm-up act for Julia Gillard at her launch, although he primarily delivered a legacy speech talking about his own achievements (which are not insignificant, and extend way beyond being able to down a yard of ale at lightning speed).

Kevin Rudd, of course, made that dramatic re-entry in the race, standing in a flag-bedecked room which looked like one of those undisclosed locations in some underground West Virginian bunker normally reserved for American presidents announcing the start of nuclear war. Rudd was supposedly there for the purposes of detente, though few seemed truly sure. As we have noted before, sometimes it has felt that the only Prime Minister missing was Harold Holt, who, at the time of writing, has not yet emerged, Bond-girl like, from the surf of Cheviot Beach.

But one of the many ironies of Election 2010 is that the former Prime Minister who has exerted the most influence on this campaign has said very little. John Howard.

My sense is that his voice is rarely heard because his unspoken influence is so powerful and pervasive. Indeed, three years after his removal, this still has the feel of an election at the tail-end of Howard era, made all the more so because the Rudd term, which has definite "era potential," was brought to such an abrupt end.

It is by no means a coincidence that the Liberal Party is fighting this election with an arch Howardite as its leader. Packed still with Howard loyalists, the party suffered something of an identity crisis under Brendan Nelson, a former Labor man, and, even more so, Malcolm Turnbull. Tony Abbott always presented himself as Howard's true heir, even his ideological love-child.

So while his sudden rise to the leadership was haphazard and chaotic, it felt stabilising for the rank and file: a return to the natural order. In Canberra, too, party discipline was very quickly restored, partly because the new leader came with the imprimatur of John Howard.

Just as significant, Tony Abbott's fight-back was based on a Howard nostrum: climate change scepticism. For the right, his scepticism had already helped legitimise and reinforce their own doubts, and thus had an emboldening effect.

Now, in this 2010 election, the Howard effect continues to frame the politics, much like the Reagan and Thatcher equivalents have in America and Britain. The fight still is for Howard battlers. They remain the defining demographic. Tony Abbott has come up with an Action Contract for Australia that reduces Howardism to its elemental parts. Economic liberalism, social conservatism and Australian nationalism, as Paul Kelly, The Australian's historian-in-residence has observed. Julia Gillard has produced a cautious manifesto written with the suburban, Howard-friendly marginals in mind.

Nowhere does Howard exert more influence than in the asylum seekers debate. Clearly,
Labor continues to be traumatised by the 2001 Tampa election, and operates on the assumption that the Howard government reinforced conservative attitudes towards immigration and boat people that are now immutable.

Julia Gillard's speech to the Lowy Institute was a case in point. Much of it read like the speech she truly wanted to deliver. But many detected the high-pitched squeal of dog whistle politics in her assertion that the debate should "not be constrained by self-censorship or political correctness". Then came the policy centerpiece of the speech, an East Timor Solution widely viewed as a variant of the Pacific Solution, which presumably was partly the intention. A curiously schizophrenic speech, it combined the "real Julia" and the "Howard-conscious Julia".

On border protection, the Howard effect is distorting because it has elevated the boat people question into a vital emblematic issue, which strikes many as way out of proportion with the scale of the problem and level of community concern. When recently I spent the afternoon touring the western Sydney seat of Lindsay, whose local Labor MP David Bradbury stood alongside Julia Gillard onboard that border protection vessel in Darwin, I did not encounter anyway near the kind of voter anxiety which I had gone there expecting to find.

Nearly three years ago, I found myself just metres away from John Howard in his once-lucky hotel in Sydney, the Wentworth, when he conceded the election to Kevin Rudd. The newspapers were ready, of course, with the obvious headline. But has "Howard's End" proved inaccurately premature.

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