Skip to comments.PM now on terror firma
Posted on 09/11/2004 4:54:30 PM PDT by naturalman1975
Mark Latham always needed to win, or at worst draw, tonight's debate to secure a strong foothold at this stage of the campaign. Now it is even more important - but also more difficult - for him to do well.
The Jakarta bombing has created a new and potentially hazardous climate for Latham. People are reminded he is an untried leader in dangerous times. And his own messages on tax, health, education and the environment will get overwhelmed for a while.
Post Jakarta, a few people in caucus must be wondering (very privately) whether Labor would be in a better position if Kim Beazley had won that very close leadership vote last December.
Beazley, who Latham put on the front bench to help with running repairs on Labor's US alliance relations and other defence issues, is seen by voters as reassuring on security. True, he couldn't win the 2001 election, in which security was a big issue, but he did stem the damage to the ALP vote.
On the other hand, most Labor people would agree that Beazley, if he'd been facing his third election, would not have given the Opposition the early momentum that Latham did. And, while Latham fell ill with pancreatitis just before the campaign and is still not fully back to health, Beazley suffered a bout of sickness recently which had him laid up for weeks; that would have been a disaster had he been Opposition leader. Advertisement Advertisement
Beazley, however, is an important figure for Labor now that national security is, at least for the moment, overshadowing the campaign, and he was at Latham's side yesterday.
This weekend has been dominated by security images. Yesterday cabinet's national security committee held a special meeting, and Howard then announced more measures including bomb-proofing Australian embassies (the Jakarta building was very well secured, which prevented more lives being lost).
Labor's equivalent frontbench committee also met. It reworked existing Labor policy, declared there should be an "overarching regional strategy for dealing with terrorism", and offered bipartisanship in making improvements in response to the Jakarta attack.
The expectation is the new emphasis on security favours Howard, but it has also given a fresh airing to allegations that his foreign policies increase Australia's exposure to terrorist attacks. This view was put forward yesterday by Ibrahim Dellal, vice-president of the Cyprus-Turkish mosque in Sunshine, Melbourne, who said: "If your country throws stones, they will be thrown back at you".
Latham has two imperatives in tonight's debate. First, he needs to sound convincing on security, because people won't look seriously at his other policies if they feel that he can't be relied on in that vital area. This will involve dealing with his own past claims that the Government has increased Australia's risk. He was careful yesterday to pull his punches, avoiding any direct assault on the Government. "It's about getting it right for the future," he said.
After Jakarta, it's almost indecent to talk about spending and taxes, but Latham's second task is, as much as possible, to return the campaign to his own ground by performing well on the domestic issues.
From now on Latham must put across a simple message on his tax and family package. He can't afford to falter as he did on Tuesday about aspects of it - in particular, his claim that the Government's $600 annual child payment was "not real".
In elections, the best messages and promises are direct and uncomplicated. So far, Howard's have been like that. The $1.8 million Medicare commitment last week raised the rebate from 85 per cent to 100 per cent for all GP services, whether bulk-billed or not.
The $500 tax rebate for older people who stay in the workforce - which will cost about $1 billion - was straightforward; it is easy for people to know if they are eligible.
Contrast Latham's tax and family packages - there are substantial differences in what is received by some families whose objective circumstances differ only marginally.
When the two men face off tonight, it will be after intensive prepping over the weekend. Leaders are rehearsed by their campaign teams, who throw questions at them and try to anticipate what might trip them up. Both leaders will be feeling apprehensive today. The great debate is probably the hardest set piece they face during the campaign.
Leaders like to be in control, especially in modern election campaigns which are planned as precisely as anything in political life can be.
Following this one is like watching a tennis match. There are strong serves, sustained rallies and unforced errors. But don't look for spontaneity, let alone rowdy crowds.
The simple match-the-picture-to-the-message formula is followed day after day (talk about Medicare in a hospital, or the Mitcham to Frankston freeway in a nearby boggy paddock). The leaders' public programs, at least in this early stage of the campaign, have been kept fairly light (there are some private engagements, especially fundraisers, that are not open to the media).
Secrecy is being taken to incredible and often silly lengths. "Security" is given as the reason, but it is security of the political kind that the parties are seeking. Today's leaders and their minders regard it as unacceptable to have any demonstrators spoil their TV pictures. You have to wonder how Howard or Latham would cope with the mass demonstrations Malcolm Fraser used to routinely face.
The length to which the parties go to avoid distractions is bizarre. Take the typical example of Howard's Thursday announcement on the rebate for older workers. So much secrecy surrounded the event that it was only confirmed to some invitees early that morning. When the media bus arrived in Frankston for the announcement, the room was still being "dressed" for the occasion.
With the leaders tossing out promises like confetti, the parties also want to conceal their coming initiatives from their opponents.
Hence what amounted to a media blackout on Monday night about the imminent Labor tax policy launch, although the word of it had to be spread sufficiently for journalists to get to Sydney in time.
The formal "launches", which are held well into the campaign (Howard's is on Sunday, September 26, and Latham's is three days later, and both are in Brisbane), are big occasions, but they are under the leaders' control. The TV debate has an element of the unpredictable.
Usually the debate is potentially more useful to an opposition leader than to a prime minister. In 1984, Andrew Peacock was regarded by most as the debate winner. This was a fillip to a campaign in which Peacock performed better than expected against the highly popular Bob Hawke.
A PM has all the cards when it comes to how the contest is organised. Howard insists on only one debate, and on having it early. He used to prefer a format of leaders and Nine's Ray Martin as moderator. This time he proposed a panel of journalists, spelling out where they should come from (ABC, commercial TV - i.e. the Nine Network - commercial radio, News, Fairfax).
The format makes the encounter more like a news conference, which Howard hopes will limit Latham's opportunity to score with his free-flowing style.
Despite the debate being crucial to the next few days, we are still in the early stages of this longer-than-usual endurance race, which leaves plenty of scope for changes of fortune.
This election has become an extraordinary auction, and we will see many more bids from both sides. The dramatic improvement in the figures for future surpluses allows and encourages that.
Friday's Treasury projections estimate total surpluses over the next four years of $25 billion, compared with the May budget forecast of just under $12 billion. The Government can have a steady flow of promises, and still boast healthy surpluses.
It has now paid off so much debt that it has to look for somewhere else to put future surpluses. Peter Costello on Friday announced a "future fund" into which surpluses would be paid, offsetting Commonwealth superannuation liabilities.
The future fund, said Costello, "is going to be important to future-proof against future governments . . . so that future irresponsible governments cannot try and get their hands on it, and waste it". This was somewhat hypocritical coming from a government that, before this election, just like last time, is having a huge spend-up.
The arrival of the mega surpluses will open Labor's purse too, although it is more constrained because economic credibility, fairly or not, is always an issue for it.
Labor on Friday noted that the Government had committed $3.4 billion recently: the usually Scrooge-like finance spokesman, Bob McMullan, said with relish that this was "money therefore available to us to be reallocated against our priorities before we even look at what our attitude is to the $25 billion of surpluses identified".
Voters might care to purchase whiteboards. That way they can keep tabs on the proliferating promises. Then, in the years after the election, they can wipe out those that turn out to be "non-core".
With some minor changes it could be talking about Kerry.
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