I have a theory about the 2004 election. Unlike the media, the politicians and probably Mark Latham himself, the electorate knew he wouldn’t work out and it knew this well before his polling started to slide.
To know this, the electorate did not need the powers of prognosis, but a simple understanding of history and human nature. Having this, the electorate knew what the media and the Labor Party would do to Mark should he lose. Accordingly, they were hardly going to hand the man the prime ministership if it were just a way of saving him from the noose.
Thinking about the up-coming federal election and beyond, we should consider the potential political landscape and cast, or recast, our votes accordingly. I am not going to try to call the election. I simply want to offer five possible scenarios and, more importantly, five possible outcomes from the expression of the will of the great Australian people, who never get it wrong.
1. Any old Labor win. Kevin Rudd becomes a party hero only to find he has a lot of favours to pay back and many more people to satisfy than when he was opposition leader. This “we-made-you” factor is a necessary evil of making a Last-Minute Messiah, as Latham found out. If Kevin can last until the 2010 election and win it, this lack of authority will erode over time.
Meanwhile, on the other side, within months, the new opposition leader’s popularity will climb and a mythical creature called a “small-L Liberal” will re-emerge.
2. A Labor landslide. On the left, this will have little effect on the outcomes of any old Labor win. On the conservative side, however, things will be amusing. With his reputation as a party hero tarnished, John Howard will retire. Peter Costello will return to the bar to make money because he knows that he will never be prime minister. He might also get the job as chancellor of Monash University, his alma mater. Tony Abbott, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull will all bid for the leadership, but as two of them are discredited and one of them inexperienced, none will get it. Privately citing the need for a transitionary leader but publicly saying (and personally thinking) that he wants to be prime minister, Alexander Downer will offer himself as a compromise candidate and will be elected as such.
3. Labor just in. Kevin becomes a party hero only to find out that has too many favours to pay back and far too many people to satisfy. The Liberals have lost the election narrowly but maintain their Senate majority. At the eleventh hour on election night, just before announcing his retirement, John remembers that his middle name is Winston and that he doesn’t care what people think about him. He does not resign the leadership. Like Peter, he thinks he can do what Malcolm Fraser did in 1975 and quickly force and win an election by blocking supply. Unlike Peter, he says he will do what Malcolm Fraser should have done in 1983 and stay on in the interests of the party. By the time Alexander, who thinks this was his idea, tells them both the truth, it is too late and they have lost the 2010 election and their Senate majority.
4. Any old Liberal win. John becomes an even greater party hero. Winning the election with few losses, against the odds, on election night he contemplates breaking into a rendition of the Frank Sinatra’s My Way. He no longer bothers to call himself “confident” rather than “cocky”, nor does he offer to govern for those who didn’t vote for him. The day after the election, Peter is checking his diary and thinking about when he can take over in order to win the 2010 election. At the same time, however, John is checking Wikipedia to see how many years Menzies actually had as prime minister, in both terms. The 18-years-and-five-months total seems a bit of a stretch, but the single 16-year term seems doable. On the other side, Kevin gets the leadership back but will lose it within two years. The heroic loser thing seems about as pink and faded as a north Queensland-based sixteen-millimetre print of Bruce Beresford’s Gallipoli.
5. A Liberal landslide. On the right, this will have little effect on the outcomes of a Liberal victory described above, except that Peter won’t bother checking his diary, nor John, Wikipedia. But this is a disaster for Kevin. He gets the leadership back, but loses it within nine months.
There is a zany moment when Julia Gillard and Maxine McKew pretend to be men in order to get the job, but Bill Shorten stops this. There is a true-believer moment when you think that Paul Keating, who is five years younger than John Howard, is going to be resurrected. In the end Simon Crean gets the job again, promising to disaffiliate all trade unions.
Eventually, if he lasts more than 10 months, he becomes prime minister for 10 years.
Over to you, Australia.
Dr Mark Nicholls is head of Cinema Studies in the School of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne. His regular column, Buff’s Choice, appears in The Age “EG” every Friday.