“This election, ladies and gentlemen, will be about trust”

No, this is not some Clark and Dawe spoof, the Prime Minister himself actually said that. Although, of course, his idea of trust is different from what most voters might be thinking when they hear the words “trust” and “John Howard” in the same sentence.

“Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards? Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?”

So why did he sound so unconvincing? When asked whether he was calling a six week campaign because he was scared of Latham and didn’t want another session of Parliament, Howard could only mumble. When asked whether he could guarantee his election spending spree wouldn’t put the budget into deficit, Howard thundered “absolutely”, the word Gary Toomey kept using to assure us all was well at Ansett right before the airline went best. As any decent copper will tell you, when a suspect answers “absolutely”, instead of giving a straightforward “yes” you know they have something to hide.

It’s without a doubt the least convincing start to an election campaign of Howard’s last four, and the reasons for it are obvious – what the hell does he stand for?

In 2001 he positively burst into the election, riding on the back of Tampa and September 11 as the only man who could defend the nation from swarms of children-overboard throwing Muslim terrorists. In 1998 it was his lifetime ambition to inflict a GST on the nation, and in 1996 he was the bloke who wasn’t Paul Keating.

But 2004? “Keep” the economy strong, “keep” interest rates low – in other words, absolutely nothing but more of the same. No new plans, no new ideas, nothing other than a vague “I’ll be a bit better than the other bloke”. Hardly the stuff to inspire the troops, and six weeks of this will have voters begging for mercy and running to the ballot box to ensure something, anything, interesting happens for the next three years.

The only bigger loser than Howard today was the Sunday tabloids both proclaiming that Howard would announce today the election was October 9, but would not visit the GG for another week. Huh? How stupid would you have to be to fall for that one? Unless of course you had what you thought was an impeccable source.

And who might that be Mr Milne?

“It is understood Treasurer Peter Costello, along with a number of senior Cabinet ministers, were prime movers behind the high- risk electoral strategy.”

Oh dear, day one and Cossie is already stuffing up – coming up with a dumb strategy, then leaking it to his mouthpiece and getting it wrong. Unless of course it was leaked by Howard’s people to discredit Cossie, either way, not a great start to the campaign for the Treasurer and we wonder if he’ll get an invite to any future Milne weddings.

How the media juggled Sunday morning sport and politics

What the hell was Iron Mark and Labor thinking this afternoon when Mark Latham’s 2pm press conference wasn’t able to be taken live with any vision by any media. The best they could manage was live audio on Newsradio and Sky News through mobile phones that went wonky on a couple of occasions.

Contrast that with the Prime Minister who moved his 1pm press conference at Parliament House from the outside courtyard to the Blue Room at short notice to escape the rain. This didn’t stop Nine, Seven and Sky News taking the press conference live and in full. It would have made more sense for Latham to be in Canberra at Parliament House.

Michelle Grattan quoted Mark Latham as follows in today’s Fairfax Sundays: “Mark Latham was in Sydney (on Friday) telling journalists about his Sunday plans to ‘bounce out of bed and play a bit with the kids and keep one ear on the radio’.”

Well, not quite. Iron Mark bounced into Channel Ten’s Sydney studio for the entire half hour of Meet The Press this morning from 8.30am. It was probably the most sustained questioning Latham has received on his economic and budget credentials as host Paul Bongiorno, Laura Tingle and Peter Hartcher really put him through his paces. Check out the transcript here: http://www.ten.com.au/library/documents/mtp29_08.doc.

The PM no doubt watched this performance, as well as the debate on Insiders, before deciding to only extend the Senate for a day and a half and to not recall the House of Reps, thus avoiding one final Question Time showdown with Mark Latham.

He’s no great orator, Latham, and that was clear as he gave his first address of the campaign. There were no Whitlamesque flourishes, no Keating invective, no instant connection with you through the camera lense that you felt with Bob Hawke.

Latham will seek to exploit Howard’s failure – under persistent questioning – to give a commitment to serve the full term. He took 30 seconds to wheel out his Ladder of Opportunity. And three minutes to talk up his old hobby horse: reading to kiddies.

Then there was a pledge to keep the budget surplus and put downward pressure on interest rates.

“Australia needs to move to a new generation of national leadership,” he said. “This is what I call the Ladder of Opportunity, it’s the powerful combination of hard work and good family and community and the very, very important role of government services…”

And there was a little unintentional humour, Donald Rumsfeld-style:

Hack: When will you produce your tax policy?

Latham: It’ll be produced in the first part of the campaign.

Hack: Is that an assurance?

Latham: Yes, the first part of the campaign.

Hack: How do you define that?

Latham: Mathematically.

Mark Latham claims he has a piece of paper outlining $8 billion of revenue savings, the key to ensuring his pledge to keep the Budget in surplus is believable – and to fund his flagged tax cuts to voters in the $30,000 – $52,000 tax brackets. He had better release it very soon and it had better be foolproof – mathematically, and electorally.

The Latham ladder is a wooden one, like his public speaking style – sturdy and unremarkable. Despite the presence of two practitioners of a speaking style suiting our brown, flat land, this will be a presidential-type campaign.

Mark Latham wants public debates in town halls. Community forums, where ordinary folk can ask questions of the men who would lead the nation.

Fat chance. John Howard will roast in Hades before he allows anything but a carefully stage-managed campaign designed to keep the din of protest as far from the meeeja microphones as humanly possible.

Meanwhile, god knows what on earth happened to the ABC this afternoon as in Melbourne they stuck with some boring VFL community football match throughout both press conferences. If the national broadcaster can’t cover federal election press conferences, what hope is there?

Even Seven was able to dump the Olympics for the PM’s presser. However, a subscriber who used to work in television spotted a massive Channel Seven stuff-up at about 11.30am this morning:

“Johanne Griggs threw to the newsroom for a newsflash… and then sat there for a good ten seconds (which must have seemed like ten years to her) before anything happened. Then it took two or three goes for anything at all to happen… and then we got two seconds of audio – which incidentally belied the “LIVE” watermark a minute later.

“When the newsroom finally did appear we were greeted by the world’s thinnest newsreader, until they remembered to adjust the ratio and she suddenly fleshed out. We dipped into and out of a cross from Canberra intercut with a ‘Newsflash’ screen…

“It ended up being several minutes before the uninformed viewer could even work out what the story was. Just horrendous. I hope David Leckie and Kerry Stokes weren’t watching.

“And earlier this morning I was listening to ABC 774 and enjoying the dying seconds of the basketball final when it was suddenly chopped off as we were treated instead to ‘Macca’ and his execrable taste in plinky-plonky country and western music.”