Is John Howard turning into his old nemesis, Paul Keating? At the end of John Winston Howard: The Biography, Peter van Onselen and I wrote “A March 2007 Newspoll found that 68 per cent of voters considered Howard arrogant, while just 29 per cent felt that way about Rudd. A replay of the 1996 campaign was in the offing, with Howard playing the role of the out-of-touch prime minister.”
Since then, the similarities have piled up. Both governments spent the year before the election well behind in the opinion polls. Yet most observers, mindful of come-from-behind victories in 1993 and 2004, expected a tight contest. Perhaps more importantly, both leaders misread the significance of those earlier wins and took the electorate for granted.
When an incumbent prime minister becomes the star of opposition advertising, things are looking grim. In 1996, Keating’s memorable “Get a job!” and “We’ll bolt it in” quips were on high rotation for the Coalition. This year, Howard’s comments about working families never having had it so good are still providing good value for Labor.
Incredulity that such a good government could be replaced by a bunch of lightweights was another shared trait. Keating thought he had destroyed Howard’s credibility in 1987 and was angry at the press gallery for allowing Howard a fresh start in 1995. The failure of the electorate to take account of Rudd’s inexperience remains a source of frustration for Howard and his ministers.
The power of incumbency began to wane for two long-serving governments skilled at grabbing every advantage from controlling the purse strings. Controversy over increasing levels of government advertising became a symbol of the arrogance of power. Both leaders over-cooked the targeting of marginal seats such that the strategy became the message – sports rorts for Keating, Regional Partnerships for Howard.
The flip side of strong economic growth caught both governments by surprise. Rudd learnt from Howard how to win an election with the economy on cruise control. Having spent his political career self-consciously avoiding the appearance of hubris, Howard is now implying that he is indispensable.
“When you change the government, you change the country,” Keating warned us.
“There’s no such thing as a changeless change of government,” Howard said yesterday, artlessly as usual. Perhaps, but after a few years, all prime ministers start to sound the same.