That wasn’t so difficult was it Mr Howard? Little has been achieved in the past few weeks of jousting and speculation. The period since APEC has shown only what we already knew – that voting intentions are only going to change during the intensity of the campaign, if at all.

We can see already, though, how difficult the task of re-election will be for the Government. Howard’s press conference to announce the 2004 poll date was a master-class in agenda management. In the middle of a Senate investigation about his integrity during the children overboard affair, Howard argued that the election would be about who voters could trust on security and economic management.

Even the hard-bitten press gallery journalists scornful of the entire concept of trusting John “core promises” Howard nevertheless found themselves responding to his lead. Howard and the electorate had their own definition of trust: you can trust me to act in your interests because I am a craven politician who won’t risk losing your vote.

As it turned out, the ideologue in Howard emerged along with his Senate majority. The result was Work Choices and the blue collar workers who trusted him on interest rates will be voting Labor this time around. Howard gave the trust line a run a few months ago but it apparently didn’t test well and we haven’t heard it since.

Sunday’s effort was poor by comparison with 2004. Howard has been forced on the defensive on a range of issues. Looking at the consequent news coverage, no single message has emerged other than Rudd’s preferred terrain of leadership. Peter Costello probably didn’t enjoy the PM’s line that Australia doesn’t need new leadership. In dismissing the concept of new leadership, Howard was dancing to Rudd’s tune. Rudd may be pursuing a small target strategy but for most of the year he has kept Australian politics focused on issues where Labor has an advantage: industrial relations, education, health and the cost of living.

A long campaign will not necessarily reveal Rudd’s weaknesses. The parties have a set number of things they need to do during the campaign. They release their policies, haggle over the debate format and hold their campaign launches. For the leaders, campaigns have been stripped back to a minimal number of televised events each day (often only one) so that the parties have more control over the images that make it onto the nightly news.

There has been much less of the meet and greet stuff that has always been risky (witness Bob Hawke’s ‘silly old bugger’ moment) as parties and interest groups seek to upset the stage-managed events of their opponents. A longer campaign will arguably be less intense. The campaign will certainly be Rudd’s biggest test to date in public life. There is no reason to suggest, though, that he won’t pass that test with flying colours.

 

Peter Fray

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