Day Two of the election John Howard had to have (possibly after checking with constitutional lawyers for any get out) and News Limited is already in full spin mode, from both those with a modicum of respectability (Paul Kelly), to the ratbags (Piers Akerman).

Kelly takes up Howard’s line that the election is about leadership about dependable old John versus the unknown and slippery Rudd. And, of course, it isn’t, though it may become so.

2004 was a leadership election, with many people deciding that, though they would prefer to have Labor in, they just couldn’t trust the controls to Mark Latham. The vote was, effectively, a message being sent to the Labor Party, that it had to come up with someone who could be trusted, before they would return.

Once Labor delivered on that they came back. But one big group had already returned in any case – those who hadn’t been paying enough attention to politics to realise that the one thing Howard has been honest about these last 30 years was a desire to transform Australian industrial relations.

Once WorkChoices was on the table, they were willing to come back, even when Labor was still rotating its bald tyres in the form of Kim Beazley – a nasty clue to Howard as to how soft his support among key sections of the “battlers” really was.

The second bloc coming to Labor consisted of both the most sceptical one-time Labor voters – who hadn’t felt happy with the leadership since Keating took the reins – and a section of those indefinably middle voters, from families whose breadwinners are based around professions like low level office work, nursing, diverse “trained” services like hairdressing, etc.

Their professions don’t give them a rusted-on cultural sense of being Labor, but their conditions slightly incline them towards it. WorkChoices was a push down that incline, Rudd’s presentability was a pull factor which tilted the incline more sharply.

These groups came in two distinct lots, and nothing has moved them back. Most of the poll movements generating breathless coverage have been within the 3% error bars. If Rudd’s highest figure was 61% 2PP, and his lowest has been 54%, we really don’t know whether he’s swung from 64% to 51% and back into the middle, or stayed around 56-57% the whole time – which is where Labor is sitting now.

Glenn Milne has argued, correctly and with some interesting – if true- info, that Howard’s “new reconciliation” blather, likely to be ploughed under immediately, was a deeply erratic and counterproductive move. Nevertheless, he sees Rudd’s ascendency on Howard’s failure to create a “narrative”.

Well, commentators would say that wouldn’t they? A narrative is what they need to keep stories pumping out. Yet the voters don’t necessarily want narratives from their politicians any more than they want them from their plumbers – they want a clearly defined job done.

Barring a truly spectacular external event – a really big terrorist incident, a really big financial plunge – this will in fact be the least “big narrative” driven election since 1949 (excluding a few of the duff nothing mid-term votes like 1980 and 1990. Rudd’s programme is piecemeal and targeted, where it is announced at all. Howard is trying to spark logs that are not so much damp as underwater.

The desperation in his supporters can be seen in a column like Piers Akerman’s Telly piece, which bores into the Scores visit at length. You don’t have to know anything about Piers’ particular erm WorkChoices over the years to find that pretty risible – if you do, however, it’s hilarious.

Barring upsets, this will not be the narrative election. It’s the vamping election, making any sort of noise to fill in the time till the polls. For Rudd, the vamping is done in the hope that nothing happens in the next six weeks. For Howard it’s done in the desperate hope that the world turns on its ear.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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