It’s on. Not three months ago I sat down for dinner with two of Australia’s leading political commentators, vain and proud men not easily trifled with, and announced my belief that Kevin Rudd would win the election at a trot. They hedged. ‘Too many seats needed.’ ‘Howard is too strong on the economy.’ In short, a ridiculous idea. That things have changed in the world of the punditocracy was made official last week when press gallery bellwether Paul Kelly spoke of electoral annihilation for the Howard government. Two of the Murdoch press ‘dancing bears’ have since observed the dance card, with Janet Albrechtsen and Andrew Bolt both suggesting Howard step down. DB no. 3, Piers Akerman, gave them a drubbing for their trouble, but also concedes that all ahead looks bleak.
Just how bad things are for the government was made clear at Possum Pollytics with a frankly devastating analysis of some leaked Crosby-Textor polling. So bad are things that the government is trying to firewall seats with a ten percent margin.
So why are the wheels coming off? Lots of reasons but at base, it’s the economy, stupid. Too many people haven’t seen the wealth so much as debt. Real unemployment is around double the official stats, and most of those new jobs are in the low-paid service sector. And the more the government talks about it, the worse things will get. People are doing it hard, especially in the key marginals, and they’ve had a gutful of the ‘p’-word (prosperity) being pushed in their faces. Chastened by the polling, Howard is desperately trying to reinvent himself as a politician with vision, who looks forwards, not backwards. But he’s never had it. Not as treasurer during the Fraser years, and not now, has he ever stood for more than John Howard himself.
And now the party itself is starting to fall apart. There are many here among us who are glad to see him to stay on as leader through the campaign, if only to see the look on his face on that final night when all the spite, hubris and political failures of the past decade finally make their way home.