It is one of the articles of faith for those running election campaigns that you should run your own race and talk about the things you want the public to think about rather than responding to taunts the other side hurls at you. That Kevin Rudd has been doing this very successfully with his education revolution and other such visions for the future is shown by the opinion polls.

Labor has generally ignored the claims by Prime Minister John Howard and his colleagues that a Rudd Government would be dominated by anti-business former trade union bosses. Former James Hardie employee Bernie Banton was propped up in his hospital bed to help when the disgruntled member for Corio Gavin O’Connor vented his spleen on what he described as the trade union bosses responsible for him losing his endorsement.

“Without their [the union’s] support and their absolute total commitment to getting that deal done, we would not have a deal for all those thousands of future victims,” Mr Banton courageously rasped for the television cameras. “We haven’t got the conditions we’ve got today because some nice boss came along and said ‘we like the look of you’. We’ve got it through absolutely hard yakka by the union movement…”

With that as the pictorial background Mr Rudd felt able to put in a good word himself for the help trade unions did for victims of asbestos but that was as far as he went. He wanted this subject off the agenda as soon as possible and worked on the thesis that not saying anything in defence of the organisations that started, and still dominate, his party was the best way of ensuring this.

Depriving an issue of oxygen is how the campaign tacticians describe it but believe me there are dangers — as I learned back in 1980. Back then the big fear campaign was based on Labor’s “secret plan” to introduce a capital gains tax.

Now, with the sensibly pragmatic Bill Hayden then leading Labor, the Liberal claim was fanciful nonsense but Mr Hayden, with, I must confess, my strong urging, decided to ignore the subject as not being worthy of attention. How wrong that tactical decision proved to be! From opinion polls showing Labor in with a good winning chance a week before polling day, the actual result, after a blitz of downright lies in television advertisements, was the comfortable return of Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister.

Many of Mr Rudd’s campaign team would still have been in short pants when that happened (probably some of them were not even born!) but they should pay attention to the approach Paul Keating took yesterday when officially opening the campaign of former ACTU secretary Greg Combet’s election campaign in the electorate of Charlton. The former Prime Minister remembers the mistake of 1980 only too well.

Mr Keating launched into a passionate defence of trade unions and an attack on the claim by Federal Treasurer Peter Costello after yesterday’s higher-than-expected inflation figures that Labor would send the economy into recession because of its union links:

I accepted this [invitation to speak] because I wanted to redress the wilful, despicable, reduction of trade unionists and trade unionism by the Government in the eyes of the Australian people. In some respects this is what this election is becoming all about, what the Government is trying to make it about, running as if trade unionists were some sort of economic wreckers. Well some wreckers… the inflation rate’s been 2.5 per cent for 16 straight years.

Should the Labor Party opinion researchers find the Government anti-union campaign beginning to bite (and it is probably a when not an if), Mr Rudd will need to forget about not giving the lie oxygen and use arguments like Keating’s to rebut it. Perhaps the most telling point he could make is to point out to people that it was only because of the efforts of the trade unions they are ignoring in increasing numbers that Mr Howard was forced, very much against his will, to include a fairness test in his new IR laws.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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