We now have an interest rate rise. Barring something like a terrorist outrage, we now also have the parameters of debate for the remaining two weeks of the campaign – the final weeks when we will crystallise our choice.

Interest rates have risen because of inflation. The Prime Minister has tried to turn higher rates and higher inflation into a positive, insisting that only the Coalition has the skills and experience to manage the tougher times ahead.

He has conceded that we face “a more difficult economic environment”, with some unavoidable inflationary pressures. But he also claims “in that environment, we are better able to manage those pressures than the Labor Party, particularly with its inflationary industrial relations policy”.

John Howard is running a variation on Paul Keating’s lines from the lead up to the 1993 election, when unemployment climbed to 10%+, summed up by Peter Brent as “If you think this is crook, imagine what would happen under this guy.”

They worked back then. Kevin Rudd, however, is no John Hewson. The detail of Fightback! never really registered with the public, but Keating was able to ensure his version of two of its policy prescriptions stuck in voters’ minds. Fightback, according to Keating, meant 10% higher prices and no dole after three months.

His scare campaign struck a chord with voters in a nation not long out of recession. Rudd has sought to minimise his policy differences with the government to such an extent that they accuse him of me-tooism. They differ, however, in one vital aspect – in how to contain inflation.

Howard points to wage inflation, to IR and the unions. Rudd points to economic bottlenecks. We haven’t heard much on this. Now we will.

Howard’s narrative plays into the familiar themes of the WorkChoices debate. Rudd’s narrative is all about infrastructure, education and training. In lowest common denominator political terms, the Prime Minister’s message has proved negative. “Vote for me and I’ll keep your wages down” isn’t a compelling message for an electorate that has just seen the first ever rates rise in an election campaign.

Rudd’s is a perfect match for his talk about “a positive vision for the nation’s future”.

Howard’s pitch might be fine for the faithful, but Rudd’s offers more for swinging voters.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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