Anyone else getting an eerie feeling that we’ve heard it all before? Someone with a better memory than I pointed out that Labor’s New Leadership slogan was pilfered from the ill-fated Mondale run for the American presidency in 1984.
My mind instead turned to 1996, when Paul Keating ran under the simple slogan of Leadership. Keating’s self-belief extended to an incredulity that the electorate would turn to Howard. He was livid that the press gallery spent little time delving into Howard’s record as treasurer and opposition leader.
Now Howard, perhaps unconsciously, is also reminding us of 1996. “Love me or loath me,” he said on Sunday, “the Australian people know where I stand on all the issues that are important to their future.” Sound familiar? “You don’t have to like him, but you have to respect him,” punters said of Keating in one of Labor’s 1996 ads. Well, as it turned out plenty of Australians neither liked nor respected Keating.
Howard has a different problem. With a few notable exceptions, the electorate neither loathes Howard nor loves him. His approval ratings are still respectable. His problem is that voters no longer fear the future as they did in the 1990s. They want a leader less focused on past battles, as Howard’s words concede. A party with few policy ideas should probably avoid running campaign ads that remind us of the past. The advertising industry was gushing in its praise of the Coalition’s L-Plate campaign against Mark Latham in 2004. Simple yet effective, was the verdict.
Putting an L-Plate on Wayne Swan seems a little redundant, since most voters have no idea who he is. Labor likes to point out that Peter Costello had no ministerial experience prior to becoming treasurer in 1996. Yet, Costello was well enough known thanks to his demolition of Ros Kelly during the “sports rorts” affair.
Howard will be counting on more slip-ups from Rudd. It’s not a good position for an incumbent government to be in. It is much more difficult to change public perceptions about a political leader than it is to re-enforce existing perceptions. The L-Plate campaign worked on Latham because voters (including many of those Labor MPs who voted for him in the leadership contest) had their doubts about him. The public’s perception of Kevin Rudd is that he is an intelligent, capable and hard-working leader. A few gaffes on Rudd’s part haven’t and won’t change this view. It takes an error of the scale that Howard managed in 1987, when the Coalition tax policy contained a large mathematical error, to upset the momentum of politics.