Let’s not be silly about this. While it may not be clear who was the source of the revelation about Kevin Rudd’s heart surgery, there can be no doubt at all about its purpose, which was to damage Rudd.

Particularly since Mark Latham and his pancreatitis, the health of political leaders has been a matter of fascination for the media, with the slightest suggestion of a hidden weakness being considered a serious problem.

In Rudd’s case it would appear that there is no weakness, hidden or otherwise: the surgery was 15 years ago, routine and apparently entirely successful. Since then Rudd has regularly worked 18 hour days and walked the Kokoda Track, hardly a regimen for invalids. In all probability the story will do him no lasting harm. But that does not mean it was not intended to.

Howard and his ministers scoff at the idea that the government was the source; after all, it was a distraction from their attack on Rudd’s slip over tax rates, which they were trying to expand into a broader onslaught about superficiality and inexperience. But this does not mean there is no such thing as a government dirt unit; it may not go by that name, but there is certainly a nest of apparatchiks dedicated to the task of uncovering anything at all, on or off the public record, which can be used to discredit Rudd and his ministers. All the stuff about Rudd’s childhood, the meetings with Brian Burke, the night at the New York strip club was not the result of an opposition press release.

John Howard said indignantly last week that he didn’t need a dirt unit; he could beat Rudd without smears. Well, perhaps, but so far he has not tried.

But the real story of the week was not the revelations themselves, but how the Labor Party mishandled them. The smart thing to do would have been to reply, that sure Rudd had had heart surgery, and so what? So had thousands of others. At least it proved he had a heart; John Howard would never need heart surgery, for the same reason that Phillip Ruddock was unlikely to die of blood poisoning, Alexander Downer would never succumb to a brain tumour and Peter Costello was forever safe from testicular cancer. With a touch of wit and style it could have been turned onto a political plus.

Instead, Jenny Macklin and Anthony Albanese, both of whom should have known better, got up and ranted about a huge and sinister conspiracy without being able to name a single conspirator. And when Rudd was taunted for leaving it to others to make the accusations, he fell for it and joined in the screaming match.

This was a serious mistake: outrage is simply not Rudd’s bag. He is better at it than Andrew Peacock was, but not by much. Rudd’s great strength has been his refusal to engage in histrionics; while all around him splutter and foam with mock indignation, he keeps his cool. The considered, unruffled image has been one of his great strengths, the reason for his appeal beyond the normal political in-group. His performance last Thursday almost certainly hurt him far more that the original story.

And meanwhile Tony Abbott, of all people, has promised a clean campaign based on arguments about policy – although he adds that he still believes considerations of character, provided it is political, not personal character, are a legitimate concern. Tape up the windows and head for the cellars, my fellow electors; we’re in for a big one.

So, the next couple of weeks are going to be very tiresome indeed, as John Howard indulges in the traditional prime ministerial pastime of playing silly buggers over the election date. Expect a lot of wink, wink, nudge, nudge, hint, hint, will he, won’t he before he finally treks out to Yarralumla to ask Governor-General Major-General Whatsisname to issue the writs.

And it will be belated: only Billy McMahon has stretched his term out so long, and for the same reason – sheer cowardice in the face of bad opinion polls. And of course, in the end Billy lost anyway.

Kevin Rudd has already drawn attention to the procrastination by his cheeky pseudo-launch, but he can’t keep gimmicks like that up every weekend. A meeting with Al Gore on Sunday made a nice counterpoint to the government’s announcement of national renewable energy targets – or rather its endorsement of targets already announced by the states – but there remains the feeling that everyone is stuck in a form of political limbo while Howard dithers. And it is probably not doing him much good; I suspect that by now the voters are thoroughly sick of the phoney campaign and just want to get on with the real thing.

The tension also seems to be having a peculiar effect on some of Howard’s own troops. Last week Alexander Downer gave an extended interview with the Adelaide Advertiser in which he laid out an extensive program he would like to undertake as Premier of South Australia. Was he trying to tell us something? Or was he just stuck, as so often, in Fantasyland, the happiest kingdom of them all? In any case, he still has ideas above his station. It is to be hoped that his next project should be more realistic: perhaps a stint on the Goolwa council?

Peter Fray

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