Gerard Henderson, one of Sydney’s most distinguished political commentators and the director of the conservative think tank the Sydney Institute, pointed out to me yesterday that all changes of government in Australia since the war have been in circumstances where the prime minister has proved to be erratic and unreliable, or where he has presided over economic mismanagement.
Even Mr Howard’s closest enemies concede that there is nothing erratic or unreliable about him: and Australia’s economy is a model for the rest of the world, with low inflation, low unemployment, low interest rates and growth at nearly four per cent.
So why, if the polls are right, is he going to lose?
There are various reasons why Mr Howard is lagging behind, and they are the same reasons why he might yet catch up and win. Two issues at present dominate his opponents’ attacks on him.
The first is climate change. Australia is in the midst of the longest and worst drought in living memory. You can be fined A$300 (about £135) for watering your lawn. Labour has been accusing Mr Howard of ignoring the problem until the last minute. It has also used the issue to paint him as old (he is 68) and out of touch, while the eco-sensitive Mr Rudd (50) is depicted as young and in touch on the basis of his concern for the planet.
Yet in his attempts to spear Mr Howard on this question, Mr Rudd was forced to contradict his own environment spokesman, and to defend himself against the allegation that his own policy on climate change would cost thousands of jobs for Australians. In the end, it has turned out that the policies of the two parties are just about identical, which seems in effect to be neutralising the issue.
The other big issue is industrial relations. One of Mr Howard’s most important reforms was to make it easier for people to be sacked. This has, predictably, led to many more people being employed: deregulation is proving to be the key to the success of the Australian economy, and this is a prime example of it.
There have inevitably been well-publicised cases of very unfair dismissals and other exploitations of the workforce, and Labour has played these for all they are worth. Every constituency has had at least one – and some have had as many as three – full-time workers for the past year whose job it has been to attack Mr Howard’s employment policy.
Only now, with a campaign on, have the Liberals started to fight back. The constituency agitators are paid for by the unions, which remain immensely rich in Australia, despite a collapse in membership (25 years ago, half the workforce was unionised: now it is 20 per cent, and only 15 per cent in the private sector).
[O]ne pollster, Sol Lebovic, has claimed that at the last election, in 2004, 30 per cent of voters didn’t decide what to do until the last week, and 10 per cent didn’t choose until election day itself: which means the polls may well be meaningless. Finally, Australia is a country where voting is compulsory. The political analysts here believe that, when you have to vote, you require severe provocation to change the way you last voted, and that provocation is largely absent.
Bloody minded, aren’t they?
So no one should write off Mr Howard yet. Although abroad foreign policy is perceived as a big issue – Mr Howard is a close friend of America and Mr Rudd has hinted at a partial withdrawal from Iraq by Australian troops – here it is broadly irrelevant. Most people like the kudos Australia gets from the American alliance and accept a need to play a part in what used to be called the War on Terror.
Well, looks like Aussie Dinnertime Pollster Correspondent Brett McS’s prediction might be coming true.