The more I think about it, the more depressingly convinced I become that Howard is going to win on Saturday. It’s not just the opinion polls or Howard’s confident demeanour, or the fact that the betting markets have turned decisively against Labor.
It’s also that basic conservative dynamic of sticking with the devil you know in prosperous but dangerous times. Labor optimists point to the fact that Howard won in 1996 when the economy was also prosperous, but those were very different circumstances. Paul Keating was electoral poison, because he’d created the “recession we had to have”, jacked interest rates through the roof, hijacked the 1993 election by fraudulently promising “L-A-W” law tax cuts and then reneging on them, and then spent the next three years swanning around and promoting trendy (but irrelevant to most people) issues like Aboriginal reconciliation, the republic and APEC. The arch-pragmatist Howard by contrast has always kept his eye on the ball and presided over a record era of prosperous times and low interest rates, with home owners in south-eastern Australia enjoying seemingly amazing wealth. Even if some voters have registered that Howard was a bit dodgy in his claims over children overboard (and Iraq), these things don’t hit them in the hip pocket in the way Keating’s Great Lie did. It’s abundantly clear that Labor’s dishonesty blitz didn’t succeed in turning Howard into a hated figure like Keating had become by 1996.
Not even the parties’ respective attack ad blitzes seem likely to make any real difference. The Coalition’s centrepiece “would you trust a bloke who stuffed up running a local council” ad may be moderately effective in reinforcing doubts about Latham’s qualifications and experience for government. But I doubt very much that Labor’s “Howard is ready to leave” ads are likely to prove a devastating weapon. For a start, even many close observers of politics don’t actually believe Howard is ready to leave at all. Canny observer Homer Paxton says they’ll carry Howard out of Parliament in a pine box.
And even if some voters do think Howard will soon retire, are they really as frightened of Peter Costello as the Labor ads tacitly assume? Certainly he has a low approval rating in opinion polling, but that’s been true of all federal treasurers. Costello has an especially irritating smirk, but I doubt that he’s anywhere near as unpopular as Keating was as Treasurer. Unlike Keating, Costello hasn’t had to administer harsh economic medicine or be the bearer of bad news. Like Howard, he’s presided over a period of unparalleled low interest rates and prosperity, while the label of “highest taxing government in history” hasn’t stuck (it’s been true of every Australian government, and most voters ignore these claims and rightly assume they’re just typical partisan political slagging). I doubt that the average punter lies awake at night dreading Costello becoming PM, and I doubt Labor’s attack ads will create any significant last-minute momentum in its favour.
Update – Malcolm Farr at News Online also doubts that Costello is as unpopular as Labor thinks, and backs up his intuition with references to polling. And someone in another comment box reckons Howard has just explicitly promised to stay another 3 years (although I can’t find a media report of it yet). It looks like Homer was right. So much for Labor’s attack ads.
Update 2- Mind you, Robert Corr mounts a moderately persuasive argument that the large number of undecided voters at this very late stage might well swing Latham’s way, something that apparently occurred when Jeff Kennett lost in Victoria. I certainly hope Rob is correct. Few things would give me greater pleasure than to be able to write a post on Sunday morning headlined “Hurray! I wuz wrong”.