If anything were to demonstrate this is not a presidential election, it was Question Time. Howard, Costello and Abbott demonstrated their dominance, squeezing every advantage out of Kevin Rudd’s Whitlam-like disinterest in the tax scales, and by implication, economic governance. The Opposition’s attempts to neutralise this failed.

First there was an unjustified attack on the Speaker, and then the attempt to implicate the Coalition in the story about Rudd’s health. Costello’s setting aside Standing Orders to allow the presentation of evidence called the bluff, and then it transpired that Rudd himself had revealed this on breakfast TV. To crown a bad week, Rudd revived the cultural cringe to announce – in a London newspaper – a republican referendum by 2010.

Rudd presents well, but he is only at his best when he is not challenged, especially on ABC TV, where he is occasionally even accorded the indulgence of the auto interview. He will do well in the TV “debate”, and with more justification than with Latham, the gallery will declare him the winner.

The election result is certainly not foregone, and surely no one now believes what the polls suggest: that the Coalition will suffer a defeat greater than Whitlam’s. True the government has made tactical errors. It is surprising that it assumed the undecided, who have parked their votes in the “soft Labor”category, would actually vote for them out of gratitude for past favours. Perhaps it was the same tactician who decided IR reform should be by a “big bang,” rather than a graduated response beginning with the so-called unfair dismissal laws.

The Coalition will have to persuade the undecided that they have the better team, the better policies, and they are the safest hands. And they will have to run a better campaign than any in the states in recent years. Above all, the Coalition should remember their natural constituency, the “forgotten people” whom Menzies described as “the unorganised and unself-conscious…the backbone of the nation.”

When they are remembered today it is too often an afterthought. One was moving against the use of predatory pricing by the mega retailers – overdue, but at least the government listened. The next step is to render elementary justice to the many small business tenants in the shopping centres. They are the modern equivalent of exploited and abused medieval serfs.

As Alan Jones says, if the trade unions were to commit the sort of outrages the shopping centre feudal lords do to their vassals, there would be a massive outcry. These tenants are part of the vast and growing small business sector, employing the greater part of the workforce. But with the heavy burdens Labor would impose on them, they will think twice before putting on extra staff. Labor doesn’t understand this, or they are too beholden to the mega retailers. The Coalition must speak to and for them.

The Coalition should promise to do what Rudd won’t do — building dams, even diverting rivers, and unshackling the farmers from over regulation — and to hell with the Greens. The cost of housing can be reduced by land releases free of state government levies, with Federal involvement in establishing modern public transport in the cities.

While the undecided will probably have forgotten the tax benefits of recent years, the Coalition should consider John Stone’s call in the National Observer for two instead of four tax rates. (This will provide the added benefit that even multimillionaire politicians will find them easier to remember.) John Stone proposes the top rate be the same as the company tax rate and they be gradually reduced. He also proposes that that serious disincentive to risk taking, capital gains tax, be abolished. This will make Australia even more attractive to expatriates and to exceptional immigrants who also endorse our values.

A strong Coalition campaign, emphasising its team and its policies will not of course guarantee victory. But the people will have the real choice the spin doctors’ flabby “presidential” campaign, with its meaningless debates and gimmicks, is designed to deny them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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