A Labor MP sent me an email about the dying days of the Keating government yesterday:

I am trying to remember what it was like in ’96. It felt like we were under siege from the media. Carmen Lawrence was causing us daily grief and we couldn’t get a good story out. We had no message discipline except Keating kept repeating over and over the mantra “the economy is going well”. We thought we were in with a chance though because we trusted Keating to pull out a rabbit like in ’93. The “It’s time for a change” thing people would spout was so frustrating.

They wanted to know how I felt during the campaign. I replied:

We were scared sh-tless of Keating. I only thought we’d win when the Ralph Willis letters broke.

Prime ministers always dominate the political landscape — unless they are Billy McMahon. That’s what made John Howard’s appearance on the 7:30 Report last night seem so peculiar. Normally, he has a message to deliver. Last night just seemed to be an odd chat with no purpose.

Howard has a mantra of his own — we’re enjoying the dividends of good economic management/the unions will mess it up/Labor’s in the pocket of the unions/you can’t trust Labor — that he’s constantly repeating.

However, he appears to be running up against two moods — a mood for change and a mood of complacency. The complacency — that the economy will keep ticking over pretty well no matter who’s in charge — immediately undermines his message. And the mood-for-a-change talk is even worse. It means voters are bored by him, no matter what he says. 

When leaders stop leading, when leaders can’t lead, when they stop dominating the landscape, when they stop setting the agenda — then they are in trouble.

Last week’s Budget was a pitch to the key constituencies that have won four elections for the PM — middle-income families and older Australians. The polls, though, suggest that what happened to Kim Beazley may be happening to John Howard — that voters are simply no longer listening.

That’s why we are having the Australia Rising series of speeches. Voters like the vision thing. Labor’s accusation that we are wasting the future seems to be striking a chord.

There are many things that political observers can give Howard credit for, but articulating a vision for future isn’t one. It’s never been part of his style or character. He has stayed true to his comfortable and relaxed white-picket-fence style — right down to the trackie daks.

Take his solution to climate change — nuclear power. It seems to be appearing to voters that he’s looking backward, not forward. It appears as if he’s going for a short-term fix — or seeking to confound his political opponents — in response on a problem which he either does not believe exists or whose importance he underestimates.

Put simply, he is failing to lead. The old maxim that oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them, is pretty good — with one qualification. Voters also have to believe that an opposition is ready for office, that it is fit to govern.

Now is the time when Kevin Rudd must clearly state the case for Labor.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey