Why are we waiting, why are we waiting…
Let’s begin this week with a quote from Gore Vidal. Yours truly has been re-reading a wonderful essay of his from 1961. Campy, bitchy, snobby, smug – but that’s enough about me. Back to the Vidal.

Gore-baby expounds on the nature of politics and politicians – then suddenly makes this admission: “Even those who write knowledgeably about politics tend to make certain fundamental errors. They look for subtle motives where there are none. They believe there is a long-range plan of war when there is seldom anything more than quick last-minute deployments of troops before unscheduled battle. In a society like ours, politics is improvisation. To the artful dodger rather than the true believer goes the prize.”

It ties in nicely with the line yours truly’s current favourite political columnist, the Age’s Shaun Carney, ended his column with on Saturday: “Getting over the line and dealing with the consequences later seems to be the byword for Election 2004”.

Yours truly has been whinging about those consequences since the minute the embargo came off the Budget, but no-one’s listening at the moment. Instead, they’re busy working themselves up into a fever over when the election itself will be.

Deciding that moment, of course, is where the artful dodging come in – but all the signs at the moment suggest that the PM will relive the election fever before it turns into something closer to St Vitus’ Dance by announcing the poll date sooner rather than later.

Virtually everyone is now a member of what yours truly’s current second favourite political columnist, the Australian’s Matt Price, called on Saturday “the Church of the August7th Day Adventists”.

Sunday’s announcement by Phillip Ruddock of yet another inquiry into the Centenary House lark – where, amusingly, the Australian National Audit Office pays two and a half times the going rate to lease office space from the ALP – makes it almost certain that this will be the last week of the current Parliament.

That morning’s comments from Family & Community Services Kay Patterson about the Government’s generous munificence – to what it sees as deserving welfare recipients and the advertising industry – plus her bringing forward of new carers’ payments by six months also suggest it is so.

And the media itself has provided the final indication – the quotes in yesterday’s Sun Herald from the no doubt authoritative but hitherto little heard of (in psephological spheres, anyway) “physicsconnect.com” offering its astrological forecasts for August for the Prime Minister and Iron Bark. When that’s all they have left to write about, the election is as good as called.

What did the titans of the op-ed pages have to offer at the weekend? Well, in the Herald, at http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/06/18/1087245109483.html, Great Uncle Alan gave us some happy signs he was at least taking his medication. He was simply a cantankerous old fart, not a barking mad one. In the Sunday Age, Michelle Grattan realised that as John Faulkner could well be the leader of the government in the Senate in seven weeks time we should know more about him, and obliged with http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/06/19/1087595783687.html.

And the rest? Well, yours truly’s two nominated favourites – and even the Black Dwarf himself, Glenn Milne – gave good accounts of the ins and outs of the obstacle courses our artful dodgers are negotiating.

“Get your comfortable clothing organised and don’t answer the door to anyone except the pizza delivery guy: the federal election is not far away,” Carney wrote. “If the August 7 date is a goer – and it certainly seems that it is – the election will be called the weekend after next. Yes, that’s right: two weeks from now.

“The news in the major parties’ private polling in recent weeks has been, as always, a mixed bag, but there is an unmistakeable conclusion that comes through both the Liberal and Labor research, and that is that the Howard Government’s saturation pre-election advertising campaigns – paid for by you and me to the tune of $120 million – are working.

“This is especially the case in regard to Medicare, which for more than a year has been Labor’s greatest policy strength and the Government’s biggest electoral weakness. The Medicare ads contain one message and that is that the Government is improving the system.

“The message is biting, which is great news for the Government and bad news for the ALP. Certainly, John Howard will take it as a very encouraging sign. Whether Mark Latham is deterred or disheartened by it is another matter.

“After all, Howard and Latham are fighting different election campaigns. Howard is fighting a conventional Australian campaign, with a heavy reliance on advertising, big spending initiatives – at last count the total seemed to add up to something approaching $50 billion – and an emphasis on experience. In short, it is a classic campaign by an incumbent, which has as its subtext a warning: better the devil you know than the scary flake who leads the other mob.

“So anxious is Howard to drive home that message that he declared Latham’s pledge this week to ban television advertising for food and drink during children’s viewing hours as proof that the Labor leader was unfit for government. Despite the encouraging poll results, the Prime Minister must still be pretty scratchy if he thinks that particular policy initiative is definitive.

“But you can’t blame Howard. Latham is operating outside the conventions. He is barely interested in what the Prime Minister or anyone on the other side says about him. Or what the press gallery or any other commentator says.

“Labor has been boxed in by the Government on expenditure, as Latham always knew it would be, so he is reaching over the heads of the political media and talking about values and kitchen table stuff – the evils of junk food and plastic shopping bags, punishing neighbours who won’t discipline their unruly kids, getting a better education.

“This is especially frustrating for the full-time political media because it’s not exactly headline-making material. Where are the figures and spokesmen who can endorse or reject it with some authority? How can these objectives be tested?

“I have no idea whether Latham’s approach will be effective or not; like his leadership itself, it is an experiment…”

And fair enough too. Carney wisely saved his cynicism for Latham’s recent star recruit:

“It has been intriguing to see the application of conventional political analysis to Garrett’s new-found attachment to the Labor Party. The move has been weighed up for every conceivable meaning. Will Garrett’s background as an environmentalist turn off potential voters in the marginal regional seats or in the outer suburbs? Will it harm the Greens?

“It all seems to impute too much significance to the event and it views Garrett through the wrong prism. His chief credential to most voters is as a singer, not as an environmentalist. If he is to have any wider advantage to the Labor Party, it will be with males aged between, say, 32 and 43, who came of age drinking and singing along with the Oils.

“Many of those voters probably have little ongoing interest in politics, and so Garrett’s recent appearances in the media saying that he wants to get on board the Labor bandwagon because of Latham might have some tiny positive effect for the ALP, but that’s all.

“In other words, Garrett has got their attention briefly, reminded them that there is an election soon, alerted them to the location of the Latham bandwagon and invited them to take a ride. Beyond that, Garrett carries little significance.

“The fact that the rolling political narrative is not a vital part of most voters’ lives can play out either way in this election. Which one will the majority go for: the money or the values? To an extent, both the Government and the Opposition are running out tricked-up campaign pitches.

“Labor’s is unconventional not just because Latham believes in it but because the Government’s free-spending ways have made it a necessity; Labor has little money to offer voters. Under Latham, the orthodox approach is to be unorthodox.

“The Government’s approach is to say it has a vision even when it does not. Its energy policy, released this week, was a case in point. The Government wants voters to believe that the policy was somehow advancing its green credentials when in fact its big-ticket item was to encourage the use of fossil fuels through subsidies…”

That’s the choice according to Carney, folks. Lies or the crazy-brave stuff. (The three and a bit pars not cut and pasted are at http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/06/18/1087245101218.html) You can see the demands both put on the agility of our artful dodgers.

The Australian’s Matt Price deserves to have the link to his Saturday comment piece put in, too. That “Church of the August7th Day Adventists” line is a killer, he laughs at the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody, a song yours truly loathes, while asking about Midnight Oil lyrics and what they mean for the ALP and then wraps it all up with a gag that pokes fun at Hillary favourites from the Pete Townshend songbook and the Howard Cabinet but still raises a smile. His piece is at http://theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,9883787%255E12854,00.html

Glenn Milne, in contrast, is worthy but dull – perhaps with the emphasis on the dull.

“The pendulum has swung towards an early election as senior government figures grow increasingly confident that support is moving towards the Coalition” is how he begins.

Yup. There’s plenty of merrily skipping prose here: “There is now a recognition that the initial ‘dead cat’ bounce that followed the big spending Budget may have been temporary.

“While no one believes the turnaround in the government’s fortunes is as great as the last Newspoll indicated, Cabinet ministers believe it reflects – at least in part – an improvement in the government’s standing.

“The inexorable momentum of the government’s ‘spend and announcement’ agenda also points to John Howard going early rather than late. This is a government that is clearing the decks. When Mr Howard delivered the energy statement last week, he looked like a Prime Minister in election mode…”

You don’t say? “In election mode”? Really?

“Mr Howard ignored the normal civilities of acknowledging the crowd. Instead, he pitched straight over their heads to the television audience at home, never deviating from his prepared statement. Critics of the statement who dismissed its lack of Green credentials missed the point. It was aimed squarely at the cluster of key provincial and regional marginals that will decide the election. The good voters of Hinkler in Queensland are unlikely to respond to the gyrations of Peter Garrett. But they will appreciate tax breaks on diesel fuel excise.

“Consider the synchronisation. Last week, the first $600 instalment of the Budget’s family child bonus payments hit the cheque accounts of ordinary Australians. On July 1, the big tax cuts for those earning more than $52,000 will kick in.

“Which begs the question; why would you sit around for three months until October to give voters enough time to forget all that largesse?

“Cabinet ministers insist the government’s polling in the key marginals is more – not much more, but more – upbeat than the published polls.

“Those internal polls, say those who’ve been briefed on them, emphasise two central weaknesses for Latham; his inexperience and the perceived lack of detail in his policies released to date. Labor is on high alert for a possible August 7 election. The party’s ‘inner Cabinet’ met secretly on Friday.”

You mean that secret meeting at the Liberal Party Federal Secretariat the PM spoke to the media outside of? The secret meeting where he held the doorstop Sky was running grabs of mid morning and everyone else had shown by the end of day?

Forget worthy but dull. Let’s just describe this as a thorough but dull account of the “art” part of “artful dodgers” that you can http://www.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,4057,9898971%255E421,00.html.

There is, of course, more artful dodging that the weekend pundits didn’t get to cover. You wouldn’t think that Amanda Vanstone was all that nimble – but look at her performance on Meet the Press. She claimed taxpayers were being forced to spend millions of dollars supporting ATSIC because of Labor’s backdown on its abolition.

“Mark Latham’s failure to ensure his party follows Labor Party policy on ATSIC means taxpayers will be forced to continue paying ATSIC commissioners and providing basic support services, even though the commission will have little to do,” she said.

At the same time, however, she had little to say other than “things won’t always be perfect” when asked about the millions her party is wasting seeking political advantage through the refugee policies criticised by the National Audit Office.

And so the dodging will go on and on and on until we are reminded that one of the great skills of being an artful dodger is mastery of surprise – and the PM finally springs the election on us.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at hillarybray @hotmail.com