Peter Hartcher in the Sydney Morning Herald put it best: “Howard adds a new concept in evasiveness.”
Last week’s interest rate rise effectively destroyed our Dear Leader’s credibility. The whole of his 2004 campaign was exposed as a lie and his continuing claims of superior economic management revealed as fraudulent.
Not that he was about to admit it: as always, John Howard insisted that he had never said what he was on record as saying, or if he did it really meant something else: “It’s no one statement that totally, well very rarely is it one statement that sort of adumbrates the whole thing – it’s the aggregate impression.”
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Apart from demonstrating that Howard has no idea of what the word “adumbrates” actually means, this was a world class exhibition of weaselling, beaten only by his statement that he was sorry – but this was not to be taken as any kind of apology. As always, his behaviour had been faultless, and of course rates would always be lower under a Coalition government than under Labor.
Howard’s position was objectively untenable. His entire 2004 campaign had been based on keeping rates low: this was the sixth rise since, with more to come.
All the economists had warned that his big-spending policies, and especially the promise of massive tax cuts, could only increase pressure on inflation and interest rates, but he remained too determined to buy his way back to office; indeed his campaign slogan, “Going for Growth” could be seen as consciously thumbing his nose at the Reserve Bank and daring it to do its worst.
Also, as Rudd had ceaselessly pointed out, Howard had for years failed to match growth with a supply of skilled labour and infrastructure sufficient to sustain productivity: this had added considerably to the strain. Howard was now in the position of a leader who had promised the impossible, contributed massively to the problem and continued to exacerbate it in order to fulfil his own ambition.
There was only one way out: an even bigger lie than the one that had got him into this mess in the first place.
So: yes, things had not turned out the way he had hoped. Of course it wasn’t his fault: nothing ever was. This time we could blame the drought and petrol prices and the American sub-prime collapse, and yes, dammit, the unprecedented success of the Australian economy, and he was actually prepared to take his share of responsibility for the last point.
But it had to be admitted that there were, or at least their could be, troubled times ahead, again not his fault, and not nearly as troubled as Peter Costello had suggested with his silly talk of a tsunami, but, well, the odd squall, perhaps even a minor earth tremor or two. Nothing to panic about at present, because you had firm and experienced hands on the tiller, but the mere prospect of putting untried union-dominated sloganeers in charge should induce an instant feeling of mortal terror.
Trust me – after all you did before, didn’t you, suckers.
This was not only outrageous but, as Rudd noted, supremely arrogant: the statement of a genuine, fully-fledged megalomaniac. But, remembering what Goebbels said about the big lie, it was probably his best bet – and he had, more than once, managed to turn adversity to advantage through mammoth leaps in logic.
Indeed, some of his own team appeared convinced: the member for Blair, Cameron Thompson, opined that the rate rise might actually be beneficial to the government by turning people’s attention back to economic management – where, incredibly, Howard was still well ahead in the polls.
And of course The Australian weighed in with the headline “Business backs PM over rates.” What the story in fact said was the Howard’s stooge in the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Peter Hendy, remained loyal and that Stephen Knott, of the Australian Mining and Minerals Association still liked AWAs. But funnily enough, business more generally was not exactly delighted with the idea of interest rate rises continuing indefinitely, as appeared to be the prospect. Heather Ridout of the Australian Industries Group for one made it clear she was not amused.
And the tabloids treated Howard’s pseudo apology with something approaching contempt: the Daily Telegraph said “Not as sorry as we are,” and The Hobart Mercury “Sorry, but it’s not my fault.” The Brisbane Courier Mail splashed simply: “Endgame.” Which it very nearly is – it must be, because we’ve finally got around to the official campaign launches, which means that from now on the parties are spending their own money on staff and travel, and that can’t be allowed to go on for very long.
Howard has invented what will presumably be his last slogan: “Aspirational Nationalism” having sunk without trace, we are no to be invited to embrace “Opportunity Nation.” Kevin Rudd is still ploughing ahead with “New Leadership.” If the polls are even half right, this has worked a treat with the under 40s, but the middle-aged and older are likely to stick with Howard. Many of them, of course, have paid off their mortgages. The key to the election now is probably whether those who have not believe Howard’s current big lie about saving them from disaster.
Or, as the SMH economics writer Ross Gittins more delicately puts it: “Mr Howard has form when it comes to misleading the electorate about interest rates. Is it going to be so gullible as to be conned two elections in a row?”