Peter Garrett was right, of course. The election campaign is not giving us a clear indication of what a Rudd Labor Government would be like. Not because they are being deceptive (no more deceptive than Howard, at least) but because election campaigns give a misleading impression of what to expect during the following parliamentary term.
Last week’s battle over global warming was vintage Howard – getting us so bogged down in the detail that we forgot the bigger picture – that the Howard government has zero credibility on the issue. The electorate – less inclined than the commentariat to be obfuscated by policy detail – senses this. Small target strategies are just that – political strategies. The Coalition ads about union dominance under Labor contain an essential truth. The two front bench teams have very different sets of political values. Their interest in the median voter is about means and not ends.
The key to making substantial policy changes in Australia is not, as Gough Whitlam suggested, to crash through or crash, but to secure multiple election victories. Only when the Liberal Party was defeated on the fifth successive occasion in 1993 did the party become resigned to the popularity of Medicare.
Between 1993 and 1996, the Coalition abandoned most of the unpopular policies that Keating picked apart in defeating Hewson. One of Howard’s goals was to give a lower profile to issues such as multiculturalism and indigenous affairs. The election of Pauline Hanson and the High Court’s Wik decision meant that he spent most of 1997 following rather than setting the political agenda. Events, more so than election promises, are the stuff of government. The quintessential event of Howard’s prime ministership was Tampa. No Labor leader, nor any other Liberal leader for that matter, would have reacted to the same set of circumstances in the way Howard did.
Howard’s reaction to events such as Tampa are less surprising when we understand his life in politics. We know much less about Kevin Rudd than any incipient PM since the war. We do know, however, that Rudd will be surrounded by a very different team and face a different set of circumstances than Howard has in the past decade. For example, Labor is yet to release its higher education policy, but it would be unlikely that Rudd would replicate Howard’s quinella of less money and more red tape for universities.
Garrett has done us all a favour by forcing us to take our minds off tax cuts an election and a half away and think instead about the types of political leaders offering themselves up to run the country on our behalf.