Does John Howard have one last scare campaign in him? Rising interest rates killed off any chance Paul Keating had for re-election in 1996. Taking over from the hapless Alexander Downer early in 1995, Howard lamented that “five minutes of economic sunlight” was all that voters had enjoyed since the recession.

Now, the Reserve Bank has as good as destroyed the Coalition’s chosen election slogan “Go For Growth”. This is a mere inconvenience for a campaign veteran such as Howard. In a radio interview this morning, Howard – unprompted – threw rising oil prices into the inflation equation. Responding to yesterday’s rates rise, government strategists released advertisements eerily similar to those from 2004 outlining how high interest rates have been under Labor governments.

Labor failed to push back on economic issues then, but have already shown sterner stuff this time. During the leaders’ debate, Rudd taunted Howard with the high inflation, unemployment and interest rates of his time as Malcolm Fraser’s treasurer. A fine rhetorical point, but well beyond the memory of anyone currently servicing a mortgage.

Things are always worse under Labor, Howard maintains. Only the coalition believes in budget surpluses. Yet, as Peter Costello told my John Winston Howard co-author, Peter van Onselen and I, Howard never misses an opportunity to spend his way out of political trouble. We have budget surpluses despite John Howard, not because of him. Nevertheless the budget surpluses – just like the interest rate rises – are a political fact of life.

Labor’s me-too strategy on tax cuts has caused them to forfeit the high ground on fiscal policy. Latham went out of his way in 2004 to show that his spending promises were more responsible than the government’s, but got no credit for it. The message to voters from the media, as it is again this time around, was that both sides were over-promising. The best way to play to its own strengths would be for Labor to put substance behind its ‘Education Revolution’ rhetoric. In the leaders’ debate, Rudd did well in linking education to the economy.

It takes a few billion dollars to raise a headline these days but it is vital for Labor to move the campaign agenda on from interest rates to education before Howard moves it on from interest rates to economic management.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey