Peter Garrett made three mistakes last week. He assumed a shock-jock would have a sense of humour; he assumed a shock-jock would have a sense of proportion; and he assumed a shock-jock would have moral scruples.
This pathetic naiveté led him to joke to Steve Price that, far from being me-too about policy, in government Labor would change everything.
Price announced it as a scoop, and the Liberal party bunker erupted with cheers; Peter Costello announced that the great conspiracy was now in the open and Garrett had admitted Kevin Rudd, far from being the softly spoken moderate reformer and economic conservative he presented to the public, was really a ravening monster dedicated to ruin, pillage, rapine and the destruction of Australia’s cricketing supremacy.
No-one really took it seriously, but it made half a day of headlines before Rudd and Garrett explained that it was meant as a joke, that’s J-O-K-E to the slow learners, and while Labor certainly aimed to change quite a bit, it would stick to the policies as announced, including those where John Howard had the same or similar. Garrett said he had learned something: not to talk to Steve Price.
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Actually he could afford to take that a bit further, and not talk to anyone at all for the next fortnight or so. The polling suggests that the voters long ago stopped listening, and the media are only interested in picking up gaffes, blunders, boo-boos and anything they can present as deviations from the basic script. From Labor’s point of view, the less said the better.
Tony Abbott only made one mistake last week: he got out of bed. The string of blunders that flowed from this indiscretion kept the punters amused for a solid couple of days and were far harder to gloss over than Garrett’s jocularity.
It will be difficult to forget Abbott insulting the dying Bernie Banton, swearing at Nicola Roxon and calling Tasmania’s health minister a liar. In retrospect about the only thing he did right was to turn up late to his National Press Club debate – late, but not late enough. He would have done better to have stayed away altogether.
It is doubtful if Abbott is capable of learning from this kind of experience; his record suggests that he is truly incorrigible. But even if he could be persuaded to shut up and go away for the rest of the campaign, the option isn’t really there. Unlike Labor, the government cannot afford to coast. With Rudd’s majority still apparently unassailable and time running out, Howard has to throw everything he can at his opponents and Abbott, with all his thuggery and craziness remains one of Howard’s top attack dogs, and health one of the chief battlegrounds.
Last week was meant to be the great television show piece, the celebration of Howard’s takeover of the Mersey Hospital in Tasmania, a feast in a special marquee featuring a glittering assemblage headed by the Dear Leader himself. Instead, Abbott had a cup of tea with the domestic staff; it turned out that the conditions for the redeployment of the doctors and nurses had not been met, and might not be met until after the election – by which time there would be no point in them.
As workmen dismantled the unused marquee outside the still deserted building, Howard convened a hasty press conference in Melbourne to announce more health policy, which was greeted with a marked lack of enthusiasm by the jaded media. His minister’s antics were considered far more newsworthy.
This feeling that nothing is really working is starting to pervade the Liberal rank and file, who are making preparations for survival which do not include John Howard. These days his picture seldom appears on their campaign literature or posters: ironically, Howard is getting a better run in Labor advertising than Liberal, with his famous quote about Australian families never having been better off getting more repeats than Fawlty Towers.
Similarly most references to the Liberal and National Parties have been deleted from the propaganda of their candidates; voters are encouraged to believe that those standing for the conservative forces are really sturdy independents who will invariably put the interests of their own constituents ahead of those of their party, in the unlikely event such conflict should arise.
Some, like the National Ian Crossland in Leichhardt, far Northern Queensland, are canvassing vote largely on the basis of such disloyalty: “I want to go to Canberra and kick arse,” he boasted last week. So much for Howard’s exciting new policy agenda for a fifth term. His own troops, having found it unsaleable, are already telling their followers to forget it, they’ll do things their own way.
There have been some reports from the provinces that the coalition is hanging on in some of its marginal seats, and that it still hopes to squeak across the line with a last minute surge of pork-barrelling and scare tactics; and on paper it’s still possible. But it’s looking pretty unlikely. This week is basically a write off, swamped by Melbourne Cup and interest rates, after which we will have the massively delayed official campaign launches and the final frenzy. It will be noisy, expensive, unedifying and probably very nasty, especially if Abbott and Costello have anything to do with it. But it will probably make very little difference to the voters, increasing numbers of whom can’t wait for the end of November, to vote and get it over with and then get stuck into the pre-Christmas drinks.