I’m sure John Howard didn’t want a backbench revolt in the House of Representatives over the treatment of asylum seekers. I’m sure he would prefer that the record run of good economic news did not come to an end. It is one of the perversities of politics, however, that a little bit of adversity is just what is needed to boost his electoral chances.

One thing I learned while working on the Hawke campaigns in the 1980s and 90s is that governments do not get punished when things are going wrong but at some time after the bad events. How else to explain the victories of 1987 and 1990 when unemployment was rising and interest rates were high? Even the self-acclaimed architect of recession managed to win in 1993.

When times are tough, people are cautious and don’t take risks. Better the devil we know is a common attitude. Thus it was not until the arrival of better times in 1996 that Labor was actually thrown out for the hardships of the previous decade.

It is against the background of this experience that I wonder whether rising interest rates really are such a negative for Prime Minister Howard. His decade at the helm has generally been a comfortable and productive one. Is the first time of a little trouble the right time to take a chance on the alternative?

For people to take hand government over to Labor, Kim Beazley needs to satisfy people that he is not a risky proposition and basically that means satisfying them that his economic policies would not be much different from those of the successful Coalition. He needs to limit the points of difference rather than exaggerate them.

The different, but conservative, approach to industrial relations – stressing that Labor will preserve working conditions rather than change them – is quite enough for the electorate to cope with.

As for three government members crossing the floor and two others abstaining, there is unlikely to be any lasting electoral impact. If anything, the action of this principled handful will reassure liberal Liberals that the party is still capable of representing their views. And even if he had suffered defeat of the asylum seeker legislation in the Senate this week – which now won’t happen – it would simply have confirmed that view and strengthened the Howard grip on office rather than weakened it.

Peter Fray

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