Is the John Howard Era Over?
Conventional wisdom holds that in Australian politics it is easier to retain leadership than to win it from opposition. On November 24 Prime Minister John Howard's center-right Coalition government will seek its fifth consecutive term. Challenging its incumbency is the center-left Labor Opposition, led since December 2006 by Kevin Rudd. Holding 60 of 150 seats currently, Labor requires a swing of at least 16 seats.
Howard's decade-plus in power has coincided with prosperity and stability. He has presided over uninterrupted economic growth assisted by a resources boom, concurrent with declining unemployment, low interest rates, and low inflation. During the same period Labor has dominated at the state level. The current federal-state configuration - with Labor in government in all six Australian states and the two territories - has held since 2002.
This may be about to change. Labor and Rudd have led the opinion polls consistently and by clear margins for eighteen months, and are favoured by betting markets. Many commentators, including conservatives supportive of Howard, appear to have written the Coalition off. Veteran pollster Sol Lebovic, however, has played down polls' predictive efficacy, observing that Australian voters "are great dabblers. They get to dislike a government or are just tired of it. So they test what it feels like to sit on the other side. Then it is up to the other side to convince them they're better than the government."
The Opposition has sought to differentiate itself from the government selectively. Rudd has identified himself as economically conservative in general but has taken a progressive stance on climate change. Labor's historic and systemic trade union affiliations, in particular those of deputy leader Julia Gillard, are a potentially significant liability. This has required a more ambiguous approach to workplace relations, asserting an increased role for unions but downplaying any productivity implications. A presidential style of campaigning has evolved, with Rudd center stage and his shadow cabinet keeping a low profile. Part of Rudd's appeal as leader is his freshness and lack of union baggage, but this carries with it the risk of the unknown. He has been a federal parliament member since 1998, and thus only in opposition, enabling the Coalition to label him unproven. By contrast, Howard's Treasurer, Peter Costello, and Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, have both held their high profile portfolios since 1996.
But leadership is also a live issue for the Coalition. Peter Costello's desire to lead the Liberal Party has been a recurrent subject of media focus. Howard has recently indicated that he will transition out of the prime ministership in the next term should he be re-elected, identifying Costello as his preferred and likely successor. Whether and how Labor might capitalize on this without highlighting its own inexperience remains to be seen.
With a month to go, the Coalition will promote its economic management credentials - traditionally perceived to be Labor's weakness. Immediately following setting the election date, Howard set the agenda - announcing tax cuts worth $34 billion over three years. Having thus far essentially followed suit, the Opposition will most likely counter with assertions of housing unaffordability, 'mortgage stress,' and job insecurity, and attempt to tie these to the government's recently implemented workplace relations reforms.
Relatively little campaign energy is likely to be expended by either party on national security, immigration and foreign policy. Both leaders are supportive of the US alliance - recently strengthened through ratification of the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement and an enhanced intelligence relationship - and of Australia's troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan; neither has much to gain by disrupting this status quo. Voters, according to the polls, are now primarily concerned with domestic issues.
Labor's challenge is to establish substantive positive differentiation. It must sufficiently distance itself both from its own union encumbrances and the Coalition. These objectives are in tension: it must partially disempower its core constituency, the union movement, but not so as to appear a mere imitation of its more experienced opponent. Most existing indicators suggest it will succeed, however I believe Howard can, and will win. The Coalition are a known quantity with a strong economic track record. Australians are cautious and conservative voters, and they have had less than twelve months to dabble with the prospect of Rudd in office. Whilst they may have tired of Howard to some degree, it seems unlikely that they are prepared to overturn the prevailing federal-state balance of power.
Stephen Samild is an IT consultant in Sydney, Australia.