No doubt the lights are burning and the heads are aching in Labor HQ as I write, as the wonks pour over such figures as are available, desperate to find a hole in the $34 billion great new tax giveaway.

It’s high-stakes. The announcement has given the Coalition initiative and momentum. But one error, one double-count will hole it below the water-line. The move shows that all talk of a “narrative” election – at this stage – is crap. It’s no more a narrative than an auction is. There’s no competing visions, just a competing set of offers.

In that respect, one has to bow once again before Howard’s supreme tactical skills. Not in the tax offer. Any fool can do that. No, in the blather about “new reconciliation” last week. Here we all were, debating whether it was genuine or strategic and if it was strategic what was the strategy. And what was it? Misdirection. Pure magic.

We’ve spent so much time using the “rabbit out of the hat” cliche that we forgot what magic actually involves – getting the audience to watch the wrong hand. So, blathering on about it as we did, a vacuum was created – one in which the tax giveaway could land as if from outer space.
So my suggestion that this was an appeal to Bennelong is now revealed as obvious pants. Howard was simply using the hopes of Aboriginal people as a decoy. He’s in it to win.

There are two consolations to this appalling error. One, at least I wasn’t so stupid, as some, to believe there was a skerrick of honest feeling there and two, it reminds me of why I could never be a politician in that mould. Such iron cynicism, such a refusal of the comforts of basic fellow-feeling (not that, personally, I set much store by reconciliation, apology etc business) – there is almost something ascetic, renunicatory in such deep dishonesty. It makes one thankful for the possession of basic human qualities which, in Howard’s world, count as limitations.

The question is, who had actually twigged to the PM’s strategy? Gerard Henderson, head of the Sydney Institute where the speech was delivered? Glenn Milne, who wrote a piece suggesting that it was a measure of Howard’s isolation and erratic nature? How far up the arm does the spin-bowl go?

If Labor can’t find any bad arithmetic in the proposals – and even if they do – they will have to hold fire and come out with a more all-embracing bribe, combined with the obvious point that $15-$30 a week back ain’t much if your employer already ripped you off twice that thru WorkChoices.

Labor may take the campaign into “narrative” territory as well – basically about how Howard has run down the economic and social plant of the country for ten years, rather than re-investing for a fairer and better Australia. But tax cuts may make that look like a code for more taxes.

Still, look on the bright side. For the first time in months, the next set of polls will actually tell us something interesting.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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