February 13, 2004 | Graham

Is the Parliamentary Super decision the end of the beginning?

“The end of the beginning.” J M Barrie’s clever twisting of the more common phrase seems an appropriate place to start a post about John Howard’s pirouette on Parliamentary super. The political dual between Latham and Howard is getting a Peter Pan feel about it. I think Latham would make a lumpy flyer, more like a B52 than a Spitfire, no matter how much fairy dust he wore. Howard is too short to be a properly villainous Hooke, and has all his limbs.
But both our Neverlands have surreal thematic connections. There are boat people in both and off-shore detention centers; the Lost Boys live in the base of a huge tree, perhaps somewhere in Tasmania with Bob Brown, and they rely on an alliance with the indigenous inhabitants in their fight against the piratical forces. Then of course there is the crocodile, just waiting for Steve Irwin (perhaps another lost boy) to usher it out of the bush. Carmen Lawrence would have to be Wendy, and don’t tempt me on Tinkerbell.
Now there is this ferocious aerial combat where Latham relies on his complete unpredictability to slip under the long and sharp blade of Howard to tie his shoe laces together. Latham stands on top of the pile of Parliamentary Superannuation and crows, Howard pulls it out from under him. The question is, who gains the tactical and strategic advantages?
I had to think about this when a friend rang me with the news yesterday. The conventional answer would be that Howard has panicked. It was certainly a hasty decision and left Peter Costello (and Tony Abbott) who went out and defended the existing system looking very much like Smee. It also gives Latham the appearance of being in control of the agenda.
One can see a series of plays developing as Latham floats one populist idea after another and the Prime Minister adopts them. Latham’s eventual pitch to the electorate would then end up being – do you want the original or the counterfeiter; the boy who won’t grow up, or the one who doesn’t know he’s too old?
On the other hand, how many populist plays can Latham make? Howard takes this one away and it is forgotten in a month or so. Latham then has to find another which is as effective. As we get closer to the election it becomes harder and harder.
That is probably what the Prime Minister is hoping. Much of what Latham has come out with to date are stunts. For example a campaign to encourage parents to read books to kids at night is as likely to be effective as the “Life be in it Campaign”. Despite the exhortations from Norm we now live in one of the most obese countries in the world. Their sole value is that they give him momentum and they have the commentariat talking about issues which are on his agenda. It doesn’t really matter what is said about Education – as Labor is regarded by Australians as best to deal with it, any conversation about Education will tend to favour Labor.
Howard needs people talking about his agenda. At the moment that is the Free Trade Agreement with the USA. Parliamentary super was a distraction, so Howard has ruthlessly chopped it. In fact he is blatantly open about the fact that his change of mind is not about policy or what is right or wrong, but merely about tactics. That in itself is a concern. You would like to think that Government was about more than the game. There’s another echo of Neverland.
What would Peter Pan do? I think Peter would store this reaction up and go and play another game for a while. He now knows that he has the Prime Minister’s measure on populism and that the PM has no stomach when it comes to arguing the toss with Alan Jones and his audience. When the real showdown comes and the crocodile with the watch is circling the ship at general election time, he can bring a similar gambit out and know with reasonable certainty what Howard will be inclined to do. He will also know that at that stage of the game, Howard won’t be able to do it.
Captain Hook would also store up this knowledge for future use so as to avoid a similar situation or at least anticipate it. Hook would be devising his own strategy to fight the next battle on his own ground, laying his own ambush. That’s going to be tough for Howard as after eight years in power he has achieved, or tried to achieve, most of what he has imagined. There is not much more that he can get without running into reality in the Senate.
Hook also needs to reengineer the atmospherics. Much of the excitement around Latham is because he is perceived as being younger, more vigorous and different. What if Howard were to prove that he was really just another pirate? One of Latham’s greatest weaknesses is that people like me have agreed with a lot of his ideas in the past. It means that when it comes to economic and social policy he and Howard have very similar agendas.
To win the election Latham needs to keep the Left in his canoe, at the same time as he reaches out to new voters. Flattening the tax structure for example, would not do that. He’ll need to change his tune on tax and many other issues, but then what if people come to suspect that Latham’s new positions are just a cover for old ones? What if they come to suspect that policy positions are all about winning the game, and that their role as electors is to applaud and reward the performance, but that afterwards nothing will have changed? Our research into the last election suggested that Labor had a problem when it came to trust. People liked what they saw, but didn’t trust them to deliver. It is a problem common to oppositions everywhere in Australia at the moment.
At the moment there are a lot of possibilities open. When we look back at the 2004 Federal Election I think Howard’s conversion on superannuation will be seen as the first real engagement between him and Latham, and will embody a lot of what will become obvious and clear themes of their approaches. This is the first star, now it’s off to the right and on towards dawn. (And no I haven’t seen the latest movie, but I did read the book decades ago).

Posted by Graham at 10:54 am | Comments Off on Is the Parliamentary Super decision the end of the beginning? |
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