John Howard is focussing on the economy. He told us so yesterday in Tokyo; five times in three sentences.

As he said at his daily doorstop:

I will be focussing, and my colleagues will be focussing very heavily in the weeks and months ahead on the way in which Labor has sought to frustrate the very prosperity they will seek to exploit in their pre-election promises.

Their starting point will be the strong economy which they opposed arriving and I will be focussing on that and I will be certainly focussing very heavily on the risk that Labor represents to the Australian economy, particularly in the area of workplace relations where the destruction of our changes will set the economy back, reinstall the unions as the driving force in the management of labour relations in this country and return the spectre of unfair dismissal laws for small business.

Now we will be focussing on those things, but we’ll continue to hold the Labor Party and individuals in the Labor Party to account.

Now translate that into the context of a six month election campaign, add in the rhetoric about Kevin Rudd being inexperienced and prone to errors in judgment, and it is apparent the government is finding it hard to differentiate its record and future plans from the product Labor is offering.

What the Liberal-National promise gets down to is that Labor is not much different to us but we can do it better. Don’t take a chance. Stick with the tried and true so that the good times keep rolling.

In yesterday’s comments Mr Howard could draw attention to only one specific policy difference and it is no certainty that will work to his advantage.

“I believe very strongly in WorkChoices,” he said.

“I think WorkChoices is the future. The repeal of WorkChoices is the past and Labor is offering a return to the past by saying that it’s going to repeal WorkChoices. I believe in it as a policy instrument because I believe in a more flexible labour market, I’ve believed in that all my political life and I believe the economic conditions of the 21st Century and the competitive world environment in which Australia operates requires that we keep faith with a more flexible workplace. The evidence to me is that the economy has benefited.”

Mr Rudd and his trade union supporters will happily disagree with that assessment. They believe that a significant part of the lead Labor has had in the polls since well before Kevin Rudd succeeded Kim Beazley comes from community concern about the impact of industrial relations changes on wage earning Australians.

The main benefit of the new face at the top of the party is to persuade people that there really might be a chance of returning some power and influence from employers to employees via the traditional referees in the conciliation and arbitration system.

From now until October is not long for Mr Howard and his colleagues to persuade Australians that all those sad stories featured in ACTU advertisements are not real.

Little wonder that Treasurer Peter Costello was reported by Glenn Milne in one of his columns a month ago to be putting a different slant on the conditions best suited to a campaign based on “We can manage the economy better than them”.

According to Milne it was “no wonder Peter Costello is telling anyone who’ll listen, behind the back of his hand, that it might not be such a bad thing if the economy hits a few bumps. In the Treasurer’s eyes such a scenario would put some voter apprehension back into the election mix.”

Having gone through campaigns with the Labor Party in 1987 and 1990, I understand where the Treasurer might be coming from. Those two victories were achieved in the face of high unemployment and high interest rates because people were reluctant to risk inexperienced management despite the pain being imposed on them.

Punishment was exacted later on Paul Keating, and the risk taken with John Howard, when the good times had returned but the memories still remained.

A bit sad really if what John Howard really needs to win again is another interest rate rise, a flood of mortgagee sales and growing fear about job security.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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