One of Australia’s latte set’s favourite parlour games this year has been to speculate on John Howard losing his seat in the upcoming election: his electorate seat, that is, not just his Prime Minister’s seat in Parliament.
Psephologists say the demographics of his Bennelong seat on Sydney’s North Shore have been changing in Labor’s favour, thanks to immigration and boundary changes, making it marginal.
And Labor’s candidate is a high-profile television journalist, Maxine McKew. Polls have her in the lead.
Can a sitting Prime Minister really lose his seat? Sir Wallace Rowling nearly did during Labour’s rout here in 1975 and Stanley Bruce did in Australia in 1929. The logic is that if voters conclude Labor is set to become the government the pull of prime ministerial office on voters fades.
And there is much reason to think Kevin Rudd’s Labor is going to become the government.
Why is this?
In the early part of 2004, the last election year, Labor held a large lead but lost it as its erratic leader, Mark Latham, was exposed and exposed himself, allowing Howard and his Liberal-National coalition a cruise back into office.
That early 2004 lead indicates voters were window shopping the possibility of change but decided the goods weren’t up to scratch. Since Rudd became leader late last year voters have been window shopping again — but as time has passed have become increasingly interested in buying.
Add to that rising interest rates, deregulation of a cosseted labour market, growing discomfort with Howard’s super-pro-American hard line on Iraq, his cynical vote-buying and the fact that he has been Prime Minister 11 years.
It doesn’t quite add up to “time for a change”, in part because Rudd has to win a net 16 seats in the 150-member House of Representatives, which is a big ask. But change is in the air.
Rudd is the next generation from Howard. He is highly intelligent and intellectually strong. He has convincing foreign policy credentials, has spent time in China and speaks Mandarin, which equips him well to handle Australia’s most important bilateral relationship over the next 10 years.
He is no latte-drinking wet. A practising Catholic, he has moderately conservative views on social issues. That puts him more in tune with the suburban Labor vote than any leader since Bob Hawke.
In addition, his fiscally conservative economics makes him safer for potential converts from the Liberals than any leader since Hawke. He has promised not to raise the tax take as a percentage of GDP and to remove a regulation for every new one he writes. Shadow Treasurer Wayne Swan claims to have identified fiscal savings to pay for all spending promises.
Moreover, the Labor front bench looks stronger than at any time since Labor went out of office in 1996 — stronger now than the government’s. It is also decidedly younger. Deputy leader Julia Gillard’s small, slight build and good humour belie an inner toughness.
She needs that toughness because she is in charge of workplace relations policy which sandwiches her between a ruthless campaign by hard old unionists wanting the old days back and scathing about the new party leadership and an equally ruthless and richly funded campaign by business to whip up fears of hard old unionists holding the country, and suburbanites’ mortgages, to ransom.
As Labour has done here, Gillard aims to tilt the balance back in favour of unions and collective bargaining and to phase out Howard’s government-administered system of individual agreements, similar to New Zealand’s individual employment contracts.
Both Labor and Howard’s Coalition have softened their policies over the past few months. But Labor’s polling gives it a two-to-one edge in public opinion.
Beyond that, what would you get under Labor if you have a business unit in Australia?
First, a greener government — though the difference with Howard is smaller than six months ago after his spectacular backflip into an emissions trading regime. Rudd emphasises that climate change is primarily an economic issue, rather than an environmental issue.
Second, a government focused more energetically on “innovation” and ready to spend more on research.
Third, a heavier focus on education and training, with an emphasis on mathematics and science.
Fourth, an active advocate of public-private partnerships in infrastructure development and insistence on universal broadband access.
Fifth, getting out of Iraq and rebalancing foreign policy, though still with strong ties to the United States.
It adds up (mostly) to “modern Labor”. That has been a long time coming.