Suddenly the last rock is crumbling.

While the extent of the disillusionment with the government’s economic management is not yet clear, the polls show that it is finally underway. The toboggan has hit the downhill slope and is starting to gather speed. Whether it will get completely out of control is anyone’s guess, but you wouldn’t want to put the election on it.

The implication is simple and stark: John Howard now has no real choice. His only hope is to try and spend his way out of trouble. In doing so he will abandon the last shreds of fiscal credibility, but if the polls show there’s not much left anyway, it is a small price to pay if it leaves him a chance of retaining the keys to Kirribilli.

The risks are of course huge – but not for John Howard, because inevitably, it will be left to someone else to pick up the pieces. A serious spending spree could not really take effect for another couple of months, and it would be a few months after that before it started to show up in the statistics; there would be no real pressure on interest rates until at least next March.

By that time our Dear leader will either be safely back in office with the comforting knowledge that he will not be around for another election, or else either Kevin Rudd or, perhaps, Peter Costello will have to announce that the promises made in the course of Howard’s last fit of megalomania are inoperative, and one suspects that both of them would do so with considerable pleasure. What this means is that any major promise Howard makes between now and election day should be treated as non-core, not to mention non compos mentis.

But, as he has already shown, Howard does not need to rely on major promises; minor ones, if properly targeted, may just to the trick. And they have already started. The Mersey Hospital is the most egregious example of Howard’s recent porking of strategic electorates, but there is plenty more that we have not heard of: a swimming pool here, a sportsfield there, here a bypass, there a library, everywhere the sound of contented grunting as pet projects are ticked off the list.

Given that the Libs have now identified no less than 39 electorates as marginal, which means they come within the scope of the sort of swing the polls are predicting, there is going to be one hell of a lot of money spent – or at least promised – in the next two months. And the great thing about it is that most of it won’t be noticed by outsiders.

It won’t be part of those tables of policy costings that will appear in the papers closer to polling day because the individual items won’t be big enough, if indeed the journalists bother to record them at all. But they may buy sufficient votes to prevent a few electorates from joining the rush towards Labor, and to keep the total of those that do below the magic number of 16.

Note that the bonanza will be one-sided: it will be aimed almost exclusively at marginal coalition seats, the ones that need to be saved. Until a couple of weeks ago some of the pork was also going into what were considered vulnerable Labor electorates, but after the recent polls coalition strategists have pretty much given up hope of making gains to offset the inevitable losses.

People have been talking about a long and dirty campaign, which it has been and will continue to be; but from here on it is also likely to be brutally simple.

Continue to demonise the unions and trash Labor wherever possible, and flood the marginals with money. And, of course, hope and pray that the Reserve Bank, George Bush, Peter Costello and the rest of the stumblebums keep taking their medication until polling day.

If Kevin Rudd was a chess player, his latest move – the great hospital takeover – would probably get the annotation!?, which means “bold but unsound.”

As a political ploy, it has worked splendidly; Labor now owns the health debate, and it is hard to see what the government can do to reclaim it. The move will also have reassured Labor traditionalists who have been worried that Rudd has been too eager to appease the states as part of his approach to federalism; the demand that they shape up or ship out is much more the party line.

The risk comes further down the track: what happens if one or more of the states does get its act together, but a number of others don’t? Does Rudd still go for complete takeover? If so, would it require a referendum, and could the feds hope to win one if it did? The whole process could get very messy indeed, and end in tears for Rudd and his minister without actually achieving any real reform. But for the moment at least, Labor is back in control of one of its strengths.

Presumably Rudd will now turn back to another of them – education, and in particular universities. In 2004 John Howard promised that there would be no $100,000 degrees for local students. There are now over 100 of them; indeed, there are a couple over $200,000. Howard has also lifted the cap on the number of full fee paying students universities may enrol.

No one expects Rudd or anyone else to go back to the days of free universities, which were such a huge vote-winner for Gough Whitlam. But there has to be room for another big, bold move. Rudd to play and mate in two.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey