The big day out approaches. The one where we'll be put to the test on whether we really want a new federal government. The polling's still stuck in Labor's groove but strangely - apart from Howard's strategic "they'll annihilate us on the beaches" call to arms - no one's publicly predicted a Kevin Rudd victory with any consistent confidence.
One perceptive pollie-watcher has a simple explanation: no pundit or partisan player wants to be seen to be wrong. But pollsters closer to the coalface confirm the numbers very solidly favour the Opposition, despite the passage of time and the manufacture of consent on issues expected to drive the dial back in the incumbent's direction.
So what if the still unsayable does happen and in coming months our federal map turns a fetching shade of New Labor rose? What will and won't change in our polity? It's fair to say that many hankering for regime change do so because they expect more than its name to be different. They don't want a revolution as such. Nor a turning back of fancy French clocks to the rollercoaster days of the Keating juggernaut. But certainly something better and fairer, for more of us.
So would Rudd really deliver that as prime minister, or end up being John Howard with a softer face and trendier ties? Without a crystal ball we can't know which prong of the fork Rudd would choose for his government and thus for our nation. But that spectrum of potential deserves attention. So does the remarkably consistent caution with which the team that answers to Rudd has lately presented its position on a cluster of potential PR bomblets.
No vocal rats in the ranks on basic justice issues attending the treatment of terror suspect Mohamed Haneef, even though caucus still holds some historically high-profile advocates of due process and civil liberties, including lawyers. Expect to see a similarly united front on the newest Labor deal on Tasmania's forests. Pragmatically there's little doubt these postures will deliver electoral rewards - and that someone has done the relevant numbers. The one Whitlamism that looks rusted on is that only the impotent are pure. But when and if Labor falls over the magic line … what then?
Every half-empty cup is also half full, and any change represents opportunity. Despite what anyone documents about the creepy control freakery, conservatism and chauvinism (in the fullest sense of all those words) of so many Labor operatives today, if he wins this election Rudd will have two other generally overlooked pools of personnel at his disposal, and he'll need to make hard and fast decisions accordingly.
One comprises federal bureaucrats and connected acolytes, whose careers have advanced by virtue of their effective advancement of the Howard Government's agenda through episodes of national shame such as Tampa, children overboard and "no" to sorry - the kind of people who treated Cornelia Rau, Vivian Alvarez Solon and many other unnamed vulnerable people like numbers on another balance sheet. "I was only in administration" is all very well, but when administration is supposed to be in the public interest there's a pertinent moral dimension that can be swept under the carpet for only so long, before serious rot sets in.
Choice and individual responsibility have become the mantras of our times - would a Rudd government shine those lights where they really belong? And would it recognise what we should start calling Howard's refuseniks, a small army of the good who did walk out the door in the face of orders that degraded their professionalism and decency, in bigger and smaller ways. "You're a very silly little girl" was the response of one powerful mandarin when a public servant I know spat that dummy circa 1998, on being directed to rewrite her honest legal opinion to suit his political masters. "Have you considered your superannuation?" Superannuation isn't explicitly on the lolly list offered in the Federal Government advertising materials that hit my mail box last week, wrapped in blue sky and fluffy cloud covering reminiscent of a Prozac ad.
But line items like real net household worth, middle tax bracket and top tax bracket definitely are, in a grab bag with wild cards like waterfront crane rates and "combat ready" ADF personnel. Decency and accountability don't rate a mention. Team Rudd, you know that's your brand-busting opportunity.
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