Eighteen months ago John Howard was much eulogised on his tenth anniversary as Australian Prime Minister. Now many of those eulogisers are polishing his political epitaph.
There is, quite apart from opinion polls, a discernible shift in public attitudes and an alternative, Labor’s Kevin Rudd, who seems to measure up.
Nevertheless, the Canberra commentariat nervously recalls that Howard has won from behind before, that Rudd has to win a net 16 seats which is a big ask in a 150-seat House of Representatives and that the polls consistently give Howard big leads over Rudd on economic management.
So three scenarios are mooted: a Labor landslide, a narrow Labor win or a tiny Coalition win.
Whatever the result, Rudd is, accidents aside, near-assured of the prime ministership. A thin Coalition win would leave a shaky, divided and dispirited government and leave Rudd, though diminished, still the man who revived Labor.
Howard himself faces a possibly ignominious exit. Psephologists reckon his electorate is now demographically Labor. He has a strong opponent in television notable Maxine McKew.
If Howard’s Coalition looks like winning, the received wisdom is he should hold his seat — enough who would otherwise vote Labor will vote for him; but if the Coalition looks like losing, those voters will go to Labor and he will lose his seat along with his prime ministership, the first to do so since Stanley Bruce in 1929. His otherwise impressive political epitaph would be forever clouded.
And Howard would share with Bruce that both were felled by a tough stand on workplace relations. Labor’s polling has shown a consistent 2-1 majority against Howard’s “work choices” laws (similar to the 1991 Employment Contracts Act here) which were to be the crowning legislative achievement of his fourth term.
Rudd and his slightly built but actually tough deputy and workplace shadow minister, Julia Gillard, aim to roll them back, though not all the way back — which has riled rougher, tougher unionists.
Some commentators used to rate this a potential roadblock to a Labor win but Howard’s attempts to paint Rudd as the puppet of wrecker union leaders don’t appear to have stuck.
Rudd sceptics in the commentariat have moved on to Howard’s fat poll margin on economic management. Will it push votes to Howard as interest rates rise? No, said most I spoke to over the weekend.
If Rudd wins, what does Australia get — and what does New Zealand get? This is our election as well as Australia’s.
Australia gets a fixedly ambitious, brainy, very focused, very determined, even cold-bloodedly ruthless Prime Minister. Rudd is not sentimental. He tramps over or discards people who get off-message. He runs things his way.
And that way is managerial, not ideological, incremental, not dramatic. There would be some flagpole initiatives to accentuate that Rudd is “modern”, including moving to sign up to the Kyoto protocol on climate change and action on broadband and early childhood education but otherwise technocratic policy.
He would, insiders say, run a more centralising government, itself centred tightly on the Prime Minister’s office. Initially he would have great personal authority and is the sort of bloke to use it to the hilt.
But, like MMP here, a win in Australia is often not quite a win. Howard had to wait nine years to pass his workplace laws because he did not have a majority in the Senate until 2004.
Because only 40 of the Senate’s 76 seats are up for election and dramatic change is rare, Rudd will not have a Labor majority there. To get through his workplace laws, Kyoto sign-up and other initiatives that require legislation, he will need, with the Greens, a gain of seven seats.
And what does New Zealand get if Rudd wins? In all Labor’s election material we rate only a few skimpy (though all positive) mentions.
Rudd is well disposed to New Zealand and would see strategic value in maintaining Howard’s benign closeness. But the sentimental dimension which has part-fed Howard’s warmth with Helen Clark would be absent. Of Clark’s ministers only Phil Goff knows Rudd at all well.
And few of Rudd’s MPs have been ministers before. One who has, Kiwi mate Bob McMullan, is talked of as a possibility for foreign affairs or trade. For the others, there would be a hiatus while they got up to speed on trans-Tasman, particularly single economic market, issues. And then Clark’s ministers would need to work hard to get them to focus seriously.
Of course, Rudd has yet to win.
* Jim Anderton has taken issue with my comment last week that when he took the economic development portfolio the emphasis shifted from Labour’s 1999 policy of “smarter” jobs to “more”. Anderton says while he did emphasise “more” he also emphasised “smarter”, in policies and speeches, as a route to higher real wages. The column noted that in near-full employment “more” is impracticable and “smarter” as now the only useful emphasis.