When the Coalition toned down its relentless and fairly ineffectual attack on Kevin Rudd and turned its attention to his frontbench, commentators and Labor MPs dismissed this tactic as born of desperation.

Not so. The Howard Government knows only too well the potential devastation of such an attack – it was the tactic they most feared from Labor in 1996, a tactic that was never used.

It pays to have a long memory in politics.

Pamela Williams’s The Victory has probably never been on Paul Keating’s bedside table. Her narrative of the 1996 election campaign is clearly sourced mainly from machine insiders – and includes the full box, kettle and dice of the Gray/Epstein view of the former PM as “Captain Wacky”.

But its fascination for those who suspect that this year’s campaign has a lot more similarities with 1996 than more recent elections lies in the fact that it does report in such detail about the arcana of political tactics – including advertising strategies.

According to Williams, the Liberal Party’s advertising team made mock advertisements to try to anticipate Labor attacks on the Coalition, which were subsequently road-tested by Mark Textor in focus groups. Andrew Robb had suggested that a possible message might be the inexperience of Howard’s shadow cabinet.

 Williams wrote: “The ad team complied, creating a vicious mocking television advertisement. ‘Look over John Howard’s shoulder and there is no team, no experience,’ warned the voice-over as the ad began. An unflattering photograph of each member of the shadow frontbench flashed on screen, as a yellow L-plate popped up in front of it. ‘Australia is too important to hand over to learners,’ boomed the voice-over.”

Textor’s focus groups reportedly found the ads by far the most “devastating” weapon in Labor’s possible armoury. Voters contemplating tossing out a tired and unpopular government hesitated when they considered the actual ministerial replacements.

Pollies and political observers might not have been doing their political history homework, but you can bet that Howard, Costello and Robb have a very clear recollection of a Labor tactic that was never tried in 1996.

Howard was something of a teflon politician in 1995 and 1996, with attacks bouncing off an image of a safe pair of hands. But Liberal research showed that his frontbench was deeply vulnerable. Is it any wonder we’re hearing so much about Peter Garrett, Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard from the Government at the moment?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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