“A Kevin Rudd-led Labor tide has swept over Australia, with only the mining boom state of Western Australia holding any semblance of loyalty to the Howard Government,” Dennis Shanahan reports in The Australian reports today.

Just before Christmas he was writing, “As a new leader Rudd may appear more popular and dynamic than Beazley and have better odds, but he still faces the same arithmetic. Labor has to win at least 16 seats to govern in its own right.”

The arithmetic appears to have become a simpler to solve over the past few months. Take Peter Andren’s announcement a few weeks ago that he would run for the Senate.

It suddenly pulled the most Labor friendly of the three House of Representatives independents – Bob Katter and Tony Windsor are both disgruntled Nats – out of the equation and effectively handed his heavily redistributed seat of Calare to the Nationals. After a close poll, in a hung parliament, Andren’s support could have been vital to Rudd’s hopes of forming government.

Yet it barely created a ripple. The received wisdom in Canberra now seems to be that this election will be definitely settled, one way or another. Commentators are talking about tipping points. For Judith Brett, our most astute academic commentator on day-to-day politics, it’s been the environment.

“Howard simply does not get climate change,” she recently wrote in The Monthly.

For Shaun Carney on the weekend, it was David Hicks.

Rather than trying to single out an issue, however, they should be looking at the wider dynamic. Politics is a two way process of communication between governments and voters. At the moment, John Howard is missing the cues — and we’re not tuning in to what he has to say.

The Prime Minister may have overstayed his welcome. Voters may have decided that whatever the outcome may be, he won’t be around for long after the election.

The Malcolm Mackerras scenarios may well come true. Bennelong voters may decide to save themselves and the taxpayer the bother of a by-election and vote Howard out.

The Government needs to craft a cut-through message between now and the Budget – hence the “human dividend” talk about the benefits of having a job and enjoying the flow-ons from a strong economy in the PM’s radio address this week.

But they need more than just a message. If voters are deciding that Howard won’t be around, they’ll simply stop listening to him. That makes the role of his likely successor, Peter Costello, more important. The Budget, naturally, is his opportunity to shine. That helps.

But by hanging around, John Howard may have crafted a dynamic that dooms both him and the government. If change is coming, voters may think, why not make it comprehensive?

If it looks as if Labor won’t threaten the “human dividend”, they may well decide to replace both the prime minister and the party of government.

Decisively.

Peter Fray

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