Maybe Australian journos don’t spend too much time following American politics. For reasons which are completely obscure, there was a bit of a “shock horror!” beat up about American pollsters advising the Labor Party to use the phrase “working families” and Joe Hockey tried to make much of the fact that the ACTU had a campaign strategy manual earlier in the year. It’s hard to figure out why these scintillating revelations were meant to do some damage, but they were both obligingly reported in the broadsheets.

In what’s otherwise a tightly argued and compelling story in yesterday’s Age, Jason Koutsoukis writes about John Howard’s attempts at damage control over the sorry/apology distinction and asks:

Who was Howard trying to con? The only person playing with semantics was Howard. With himself.

Well, precisely.

Anyone who’s made a study of the Karl Rove playbook would know what Howard was up to. It was the same technique he used a couple of weeks ago when he successfully invented a “Garrett gaffe” that never really happened on climate change negotiations, and obfuscated the issue so much that apparently a bit of Labor’s lead on the issue dissipated.

And it’s the same manoeuvre being used to try to turn around angst about interest rates and WorkChoices. WorkChoices creating a climate of job insecurity? Claim that its abolition and the reign of the scary union bosses would see you tossed out of your job.

Koutsoukis, and many other commenters, including Laura Tingle on Lateline last Friday, have correctly argued that the Coalition’s narrative is crazily complex and internally incoherent. I’ve made the same point myself.

But what they appear to be missing is that in Rove world, this is not supposed to matter. If your opponent has a line that cuts through, you turn it right around and accuse them of doing exactly what you’re being accused of. The idea is that most voters won’t be paying much attention and won’t bother to look beyond the soundbites for the facts. With any luck, your soundbite might be the only one they hear. But even if it’s not, they’ll end up both confused and annoyed, which supposedly cancels out any advantage that might accrue to the other side.

In the States, it’s supposed to stop soft voters from voting at all. Whether or not it works in an environment of compulsory voting is another matter. But in the absence of a compelling narrative arc for the Coalition’s campaign, this scattershot negativity is designed to reinforce doubts about Rudd and send voters scuttling back to the devil they know. It will probably only work to improve the Coalition vote a smidgeon in the marginals, but it would be wrong to think that the Liberal strategists don’t know what they’re up to, as many commentators seem to have assumed.

John Howard is said to be a big reader of history and biographies. I don’t know if he’s ever read David Malouf’s celebrated novel Johnno. Malouf may have provided an epitaph for this campaign:

Maybe, in the end, even the lies we tell define us. And better, some of them, than our most earnest attempts at the truth.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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