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MUNGO MACCALLUM: Leaders' debates and ScoMo's ghosts of elections past

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

Rolling out John Howard in marginal electorates may not be the best tactic since he represents the "golden era" before this unsettled Coalition Government.

JOHN HOWARD has been exhumed as the great grey hope and is being paraded among the marginal electorates to enthuse the faithful and woo the undecided — assuming, that is, that they know who he is, or at least was.  

Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have been brought into to cameo roles in the Labor campaign, but those two can be counted in living memory. Little Johnny’s reign ended some 12 years ago when a great many younger voters – who have enrolled in record numbers – were not even in their teens and will see him, if they notice him at all, as a relic from a bygone era.

His legacy, divisive at the time, is now little more than a footnote in history: gun law reform (good), the GST (reluctantly accepted), the 2001 dog whistling and deceit at the Tampa election (bad) and the loss of his Government and his own seat in 2007 (depends where you stand).

For the Liberal devotees, steeped in wistful nostalgia, it is a reminder of a golden age, before the times of leadership turmoil constant civil war – repressed for the campaign, but far from settled – and ineffective government. To others, he may well be seen as irrelevant, at best and an unhappy reminder of a grim past, at worst.

Whatever the verdict, it is hard to believe that the comparison with the current Prime Minister will lead them on transports of delight. So Howard is, in the end, just another distraction from the main game.

But really, there was little alternative, if the campaign was not to degenerate into an endlessly repetitive monologue as Scott Morrison shouts his way around the country. It suits ScoMo to take the role of a one-man band, but even he must see that he needs a supporting cast — and the options are few and far between. A lot of his ministers – a majority in fact – have been sidelined with the justifiable suspicion that they are too flaky or repulsive to be exposed to public view.

Howard can be spun as reasonable, rational, and intelligible — even coherent. He may be hopelessly outdated, but he is unlikely to prove embarrassing, which is, for the moment, all that matters: the current lot have been embarrassing enough for a dozen campaigns. So, back to the future — back to well before 2013, when the Coalition gained power and the chaos and dysfunction took over.

Morrison is hoping that the electorate will suffer from collective short term memory loss for the last five and a half years. But at the same time, he is relying on standing on his record. With no serious agenda for moving forward, he has no choice. And there are real problems even with that limited program.

The strong economy which he so fervently espouses, the return to surplus and the prospect of another million new jobs, are already looking decidedly rubbery. The economy is not looking a picture of health — in fact, it is at best sluggish and in some areas, positively stagnant. So much so, that inflation has stalled completely and the Reserve Bank is seriously contemplating another cut to already historically low interest rates in a desperate attempt to kick it into life — not quite the heady extravagance that characterised the boom times in the Howard years.

Bill Shorten’s six-second grab about everything going up except your wages is actually an over-optimistic slogan. Nothing much is going up at all and certainly not the kind of economic activity needed to push growth and, eventually, a real lift to living standards. Unemployment may be under control, but under-employment is rife — in some sectors, chronic. And there are neither the conditions nor the policies which can produce a quick fix.

So perhaps in the circumstances, a whiff of Howard-era nostalgia is not such a bad idea. If the future is bleak, harking back to a mythical golden age in the distant past beats slitting your wrists or, more likely, throwing out the present Government.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the two leaders' debates last week. Given that both were consigned to little-watched channels and produced no knock-out blows, both were regarded as relatively unimportant. But in fact, they emerged as potential game changers, to the clear benefit of Bill Shorten.

The unpopular Opposition Leader and his supporters were at first reluctant to engage — they feared their man would be overwhelmed by the slickness of the professional marketeering skill of ScoMo. But after a shaky start, Shorten hit his straps and the audience in the first encounter awarded him victory by a majority of more than two to one.

The Murdoch press, of course, denialists to a man and woman, said this was clearly a mistake: Shorten may have won the hearts, but Morrison won the heads. Given that the Murdochians have spent the last five years explaining that the Coalition is the saviour of the country and the majority of voters who fail to acknowledge this divinely-inspired truth are too stupid or gullible to appreciate this law of nature, this was hardly surprising.

But after the second debate – a more combative affair, in which Shorten once again secured a narrow victory – even they had to admit that Shorten had done pretty well, although they still insisted that Morrison had offered more substance. But the whole point was that he hadn’t — he was still back to the future.

The studio audience asked wide-ranging and sometimes bizarre questions on policy and Shorten replied in terms of what he would do, his plans for change. Morrison, with no serious forward agenda, was largely reduced to boasting about the achievements of the last two terms of government. And the problem is that however history will eventually rate them, the voters are simply not impressed. They are unhappy and impatient, and even if they are not completely convinced that Shorten’s solutions are the right ones, they are at least feasible alternatives.

Shorten is becoming more acceptable, even slightly more popular — even before the debates, Newspoll was nudging his numbers upwards. He will never be a Bob Hawke, and may not even surpass Morrison’s unimpressive figures, but he can no longer be considered unelectable. And remember, even the now-sainted John Howard was once dismissed as out of the picture. Another reason that bringing attention to him is not such a brilliant idea from the ScoMo think-tank.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

 
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