Labor supporters are understandably chuffed by the not so great debate, so they might as well enjoy it while they can; when people go to the polls in 30 days time it will be at best a distant memory and at worst totally forgotten.

And this, of course, is just the way John Howard planned it: a single debate right at the start of the campaign hedged round with enough terms and conditions to make it stultifyingly boring for the few viewers engaged enough to desert Kath and Kim for a brief glimpse of their leaders. In the circumstances it is surprising that anyone watched it at all – except, of course, the worm.

Howard hates the worm and from the start it was clear that the hatred is mutual: every time the camera moved to the Prime Minister the annelid burrowed its way to the depths of the screen, only to leap back to life when Howard was replaced by Kevin Rudd. In the end the worm scored it 65-29, better than two to one Rudd’s way, which was probably about right. Howard looked old, tired and flat while Rudd’s initial nervousness was quickly transformed into a confidence verging on cockiness.

But it should be stressed that the worm was no bleeding heart, latte-sipping elitist; one of Howard’s few good moments was when he defended his invasion of the Northern Territory. The worm didn’t mind a bit of hardball. And for this reason its verdict probably matters more than the Liberal spin doctors are prepared to admit. On the night, Rudd won on the bedrock issues which are supposed to be Howard’s ground. It’s a pity so few people will remember by the time they get to vote.

For me at least the best thing about the debate was that Rudd finally mounted a spirited defence of the trade union movement, which has been so denigrated and demonised by Howard and Costello that it has become almost unmentionable in polite company.

The crude caricature of the faceless union bosses standing over benevolent employers and conning gullible workers through politically-sponsored thuggery has been the staple of the coalition campaign for some months, and if anything Rudd has encouraged it by his own policy of zero tolerance towards any officials who step out of line. This has given some validity to Howard’s line about the awfulness of a front bench with a 70% membership of former union operatives: if their own leader is constantly demanding the expulsion of their colleagues from his party, they must be at least a trifle suss.

The coalition’s line of attack has admittedly been a little confused: at least two of the frontbenchers characterised as union officials – Wayne Swan and Craig Emerson – have never been anything of the sort. They are certainly rank-and-file union members, but even Howard admits that it’s hardly a crime. Swan, incidentally, has considerably more learning, intellect and life-experience than Peter Costello had when he became Treasurer, and does not deserve the L-plates that his cowardly and lazy counterpart has tried to hang on him.

Then Howard’s own Workplace Relations Minister, Joe Hockey, claims that the unions are essentially finished. Costello, on the other hand, insists that they are poised to take over the government, destroy the mining industry, shatter small business, drive up inflation, unemployment and interest rates and bring on a recession – “this is fact!” screams the man in charge of the national economy, who also wants us to believe that the boom times can continue for ever and ever, if he can only become prime minister.

It has taken Rudd to point out that most union officials, like most members of parliament, are dedicated to serving their constituents and to the wider good; that they are by and large idealistic and hard-working, and that while some might get corrupted by the system – as indeed do some politicians – their calling is an honourable one, and by its very nature is good preparation for a wider political career. Far from being out of touch, they are in constant contact with ordinary workers and their problems, but have to view these in the context of economic and political reality.

Union officials who have come to Canberra have included John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Bob Hawke, Mick Young, Clyde Cameron, and Ralph Willis, all universally acclaimed. It is, of course, true that none of them had ever run a business, unlike John Elliott, Alan Bond or Rodney Adler, but you can’t have everything.

Howard’s present cabinet, incidentally, consists of one army officer, one bank economist, one doctor (who is also a former union boss), one stock and station agent, two farmers and twelve lawyers. Our choice, then, is between a government dominated by representatives of the workers or one dominated by the hired guns of the legal profession.

I know which I’d pick.

Ironically Labor’s deputy leader Julia Gillard is a lawyer and not a former union official, but that has not saved her from being the object of some of the coalition’s nastiest personal attacks. Last week she was outed as a former member of a university group called the Socialist Forum, a sort of lefty debating society whose membership also included (the horror! the horror!) some ex-Communists. For Peter Costello, this was the ultimate proof that Gillard had horns and a tail and was dedicated to the overthrow of society as we know it.

Alas, others remembered Costello’s own university days, when the long-haired firebrand was a zealous devotee of Democratic Socialism, and frequently attended training camps with his fellow revolutionaries. It’s not on his CV either. Funny, that.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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