The Coalition’s current obsession with political advertising — demonstrated both by its “know where you stand” IR ads and Glenn Milne’s claim that Liberal strategists believe Labor is timing ad spends to influence the polls — suggests that Coalition honchos might finally be on to what’s been very plain to many observers since Rudd took the leadership.

Labor has consistently avoided playing to the commentariat’s game plan and sought to communicate with the public directly — not just through ads but also through Rudd’s television appearances (whether on his former gig on Sunrise or in his soundbites on the commercial news programs).

In his Saturday column, Courier-Mail assistant editor Dennis Atkins previews the themes of the negative ads the Coalition plans to run during the campaign itself. Liberal sources have been telling Atkins that Howard and Costello are keen to see an advertising strategy which re-runs the Mark Latham L-plated leadership ads of 2004.

It’s interesting that the issue that they’ve decided to focus on to indicate the supposed danger of a Rudd ascendancy is one that’s already been part of an attack against the Labor leader soon after Beazley was toppled — the Goss government’s decision not to build the Wolffdene dam when it took office in 1989.
According to Atkins, the Libs plan to paint Rudd as being responsible for south-eastern Queensland’s water crisis.

This is a strange line of attack, for several reasons.

First, Labor’s decision not to proceed with the dam, which would have been located between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, was an electoral commitment, and a highly popular one which saw Goss Labor pick up the seat of Albert quite unexpectedly. It can’t be painted as some sort of backroom bureaucratic move driven by Rudd. When running for office in 1995, the Coalition explicitly ruled out building the dam.

Secondly, as with much of their criticism of Labor, the Government risks turning the focus back on its own negatives. Peter Beattie, in the first state election to have water as its central issue, wasn’t punished by the electorate for not having prepared for a drought no one knew was coming. The electorate wanted the focus to be on the future –what Labor could do here and now to ensure continuity of water supply.

And, as Howard’s polling must have been telling him just as much as Rudd’s, voters want ‘practical’ measures not arcane blame games. And voters know that dams don’t make much sense when it doesn’t rain.

The contrast with this piece of ancient history is that the electorate knows very well that Howard had been advised for some years to come up with a climate-change strategy, before he was dragged reluctantly out of his sceptical posture by the force of public opinion.

Put simply, Rudd is no Mark Latham. For one thing, he won’t let the Government’s claims go unchallenged, as Tim Gartrell and Mike Kaiser suggest Latham did with the Liberals’ interest-rate ads. There’ll be a response out there as soon as the Wolffdene ads run. And if it’s convincing, it’ll leave the Liberals, as they are now, casting about wildly for another plausible negative theme.

Once again, the Government appears to be coming up with new and improved ways to win the last election.

Peter Fray

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