So this is Australian politics, 21st century style. For over a century, our history has been driven by the clash of extraordinary forces and ideologies in the federal political arena.

Free trade versus protectionism. Socialism versus capitalism. Conscription and our involvement in foreign wars. Economic restructuring.

What do we have now? Slick managerialism versus old-fashioned hand-outs. After yesterday, no prizes for guessing to whom “slick” refers. And no prizes for guessing what most Year 9 students would do with a broadband-connected computer, but let’s not worry about that now.

Kevin “less is more” Rudd is garnering rave reviews for appearing to underspend the Coalition yesterday. The actual quantum of total ALP promises may not be significantly different, but – undoubtedly to the profound chagrin of the Liberal leadership – it’s the impression that counts. Words like “leadership”, and “confidence” are now being used about Rudd. And the “me-too” tag has been shed in the best way possible.

Whether this registers with most voters is unclear. Political tragics like us grossly overestimate how interested and informed most Australians are about politics. Most would be aware, vaguely, that politicians promise a lot at elections and that some people reckon that’s not necessarily a good idea. Beyond that, forget about it.

Moreover, Labor was making a virtue out of necessity. The Prime Minister was still fending off claims that his Monday spendfest was middle-class welfare (a charge led by none other than Janet Albrechtsen, possibly still smarting that Howard declined to take her advice to quit). If Rudd had come within cooee of the Government’s $10b, the whole launch would have been undermined by damaging charges of profligacy.

Still, the size of the difference was bigger than politically necessary. Rudd’s reward is glowing praise from the commentators, if not from economists. Slick stuff.

The Prime Minister’s response was, yet again, unfocussed. Right from the start of this campaign, John Howard has been unable to stick to a few key messages. There’s a military maxim that a bad plan carried out well will work better than a good plan botched. The Coalition seem to be trying for the worst of both worlds.

And Howard ended up playing to Rudd’s strength. “We offer parents choice. Mr Rudd tells parents what is good for them and their children,” he declared, trying to frame the question in the hope of offering the answer. But Rudd has been framing the education question for a lot longer, and the Government’s tax rebates actually complement it. Which do you prefer, Labor is asking – another handout, or a 21st century education for The Kids? Couched in those terms, a vote for John Howard looks greedy – unAustralian, almost.

The broader question is why on earth Howard was fighting on Rudd’s turf. Howard complained that Rudd had failed to address the economy, but he was the one who switched the spotlight to education on Monday.

It was typical of a Coalition campaign that has been unfocussed and unable to draw a bead on its opponent. Rudd has been far too slick for them.

You get the feeling the Labor and Coalition campaigns will be studied closely for a long time to come, on how – and how not – to win 21st century elections.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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