February 06, 2004 | Peter

The Federal Election: The Spin Begins

Well, apparently we are having a federal election campaign. And of course it will be another of those presidential style contests – Iron Mark versus Honest John. PM Howard and Labor leader Latham are stomping around opposite ends of the country selling their particular political products, mostly it seems to school kids. How elections bring out those otherwise forgotten people – kids and oldies, the ‘unproductive’ generations.
The Libs are still getting the range of new boy Latham, who has so far dodged easy targeting. The ALP strategy, on the other hand, is already clear.
Labor wants to juxtapose SMALL, OLD and TIRED Howard with BIG, YOUNG and ENERGETIC Latham. Hence the rhetoric about a big Australia in Latham’s ALP National Conference speech and plenty of video of Latham hanging out with school kids and jumping out of utes.
It’s not very subtle, but is politics ever so? And how does it stand up?
Latham – the embodiment of renovated Labor – is bigger and a whole generation younger than Howard. And his physical antics – like tackling taxi drivers and clobbering comedians with rubber bats – certainly speak to a certain amount of energy. So maybe Latham is big, young and energetic. The question is, is Australia?
And what about Howard, how does he fit Labor’s characterisation?
Howard has always been portrayed as physically small, although he is actually medium height and taller than Bob Hawke. But size is one of this country’s most obvious prejudices, and Howard’s ability to convey authority without this cheap reference is one of his achievements. As for old, he seems to be a robust 64-year-old, hardly old in these days. Indeed, the way things are going we’ll all be working on until our 80s to pay for our longer retirements. Howard has given no sign of losing any capacity to function, so quite frankly this is a misleading comparison if we are looking at this from a physical perspective.
The problem is that Howard has always embodied contradictory messages. His whole personality is that of a man of the 1950s, and in that sense he has always seemed old before his time. Yet this contrasts with the fact that he was an early adherent to the new neo-liberal economic orthodoxy that really first appeared in the 1970s. And so as ayoung politician he was in conflict with his preceding generation, epitomised by Malcolm Fraser. In this sense he was the generational challenger of his time.
When Labor adopted much of this neo-liberal position in office under Hawke, Howard’s economic fundamentalism lost its radical edge. Now neo-liberalism is no longer new and no longer so readily accepted, and so Howard’s keenness for market solutions no longer seems quite so authentic.
His staid conservatism, on the other hand, remains a core part of him. His support for the monarchy, his abject failure to recognise indigenous needs, his archaic social attitudes and his cultural xenophobia do paint him as a man no longer in touch. And as he periodically seems keen to stir up the culture wars with his various comments on things like political correctness, he is definitely vulnerable. In many ways, he is utterly out of touch with contemporary values and attitudes. After all, nearly three decades as a politician hardly qualifies you to speak as an average Aussie.
So, while much of this image making by Labor is simple spin, Howard is clearly weak in some areas. He has relied on his patriarchal authority to avoid discussing matters he chooses not to, so if Latham starts scoring points, forcing Howard to genuinely discuss issues outside his usual comfort zone, he will be in trouble.
Of course all this spin can easily backfire. SMALL, OLD and TIRED could easily become SMALL, OLD and TRIED, and BIG, YOUNG and ENERGETIC could become BIG, YOUNG AND ERRATIC.
So, the lesson for Labor is keep to the substance, because to live by spin can mean to die by spin, and unless Labor does something stupid, they will most likely win the next election for the right reasons.

Posted by Peter at 9:30 am | Comments Off on The Federal Election: The Spin Begins |
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