By continuing to procrastinate about calling the election, John Howard has left us in an ongoing political limbo, presumably in the Micawberish hope that sooner or later something will turn up.

Well, all the signs are that it won’t, and that even if it did we wouldn’t take any notice of it. The polls suggest that nothing is changing; if anything, the government’s already desperate position is getting worse by the day.

Last week while Kevin Rudd roamed the countryside in search of new marginals to conquer, our Dear Leader was stuck in Bennelong, frantically introducing himself to the residents in a last ditch attempt to save his own seat.

Even his shameless attempt to duchess the Chinese community went wrong: his staff produced a glossy invitation lauding the achievements of Chinese Australians, but through either blind racism or pig ignorance sent it not only to he Chinese, but to their sworn enemies, the Koreans and Vietnamese as well – after all, they all look the same and they all have funny names.

Maxine McHugh’s response – “Bring on the election, we’re ready” – seemed entirely apposite. Howard maintained a fixed grin even while undergoing ritual booing at the Rugby League grand final, but he is clearly not a happy man; nor are his ministers.

Last week Alexander Downer, presumably at Howard’s bidding, performed a gigantic back flip on climate change at the United Nations meeting in New York. Australia’s reason for not ratifying Kyoto has always been that it imposes reduction targets on industrialised countries but not on developing ones. Downer now accepted that this was inevitable and that we would have to work in that context.

When asked to explain the switch, Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull, himself furiously trying to shore up his splintering electorate, gritted his expensive teeth and suggested that the interviewer ask the Prime Minister. Meanwhile Peter Costello was telling anyone who would listen that he offered long range vision, youth, energy and enthusiasm, presumably in a pointed contrast to you-know-who.

He was also able to point to budget surplus for the year of $17.3 big billions, which will presumably be pissed up against a wall like all the surpluses before it. Economist Saul Eslake calculates that since 2002 Treasury has received a total of $398 billion in windfall gains from the mining boom, with absolutely nothing substantial to show for it. This is supposed to be superior economic management.

What we do know is that $2 billion has been spent on taxpayer funded political advertising, which is currently running at $1 million a day, the cost (as Rudd points out) of 1000 hospital beds for a night, 78 hip replacements or 12 senior nurses for a full year. This massive exercise in corruption is presumably one reason for Howard putting off the election for as long as possible; when the writs are issued, it will have to stop and the Libs will have to rely on their own funds, which by all accounts are not as flash as usual.

The Nationals have already started advertising, their slogan being: “Don’t Risk Rudd.” This is not quite as remorselessly negative as the coalition’s 1972 answer to Labor’s “It’s Time,” which was “The Hell It Is.” Nonetheless, it gives us a fair idea of what we can expect once Howard summons up enough nerve to name the date.

And if he is still hoping for a miracle, at least he knows where to look for divine intervention. Last week he referred to Rupert Murdoch as “God.” He said he was joking. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

At least he knows that he has one of God’s servants in his pocket. Seldom can a story have suffered such a massive beating up as The Australian’s political editor Dennis Shanahan gave Kevin Rudd’s switch over naming his ministers last week.

On Wednesday Rudd has said that if Labor won, all ministerial positions would be up for grabs, which was technically true; caucus would have to vote to endorse the personnel, after which Rudd would allocate the portfolios. Howard and Costello immediately launched into a prolonged frothing about how this was an admission that the dreaded left was really in control and that the unions would force Rudd to install Julia Gillard (the horror! The horror!) as treasurer.

Simply to end the distraction, on Thursday Rudd said that of course Wayne Swan (Treasurer), Gillard (Industrial Relations) and Lindsay Tanner (Finance) would keep their shadow positions, which no one had really doubted anyway. For most, a filler for the inside pages, but for Shanahan, a hold-the-presses, super splash, an absolute jeans-dreamer.

It was a huge unforced error which allowed Howard and Costello to dictate political terms, he gibbered; Rudd’s hand had been forced and he had lost the political week. To cooler heads it seemed more probable that Shanahan had lost his marbles.

Also, that he had missed the real story, which was that Rudd was now tearing up ALP rules and taking it upon himself to appoint his ministers without a caucus vote; and, more importantly still, that the faction leaders were prepared to let him get away with it. This gives Rudd more power than any Labor leader in the history of the party.

Not Curtin, not Whitlam, not Hawke would have dreamed of pre-empting the system; they exerted what influence they could, but they accepted that the final choice lay with the party room. For the moment at least, Rudd has broken the power of the factions and assumed supremacy along the same absolutist lines as a leader of the Liberal Party.

We wait with interest for Shanahan to accuse him of yet again slavishly copying John Howard.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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