When Don Bradman
stepped onto the Adelaide Oval in 1948 for his last first-class
cricket match he was bowled without making a run. He said later
that had he realised that he needed to score a four to give him
a career average of 100 he might have concentrated just a bit
harder. The truth is that he did not spend much of his time worrying
about career averages. For the really great sportsman what matters
is not where they stand relative to their competitors but how
they relate to the ball, the running track, the pool, or whatever
challenge it is they struggle to master. Standing and records
come from focussing on, and being absorbed in, the task at hand.
To be overly consumed by rankings is to risk losing the game and
thus the ranking.
John Howard is a cricket fan and a man who is very conscious of batting averages. People who know him well say this is not restricted just to cricket. Menzies is the Bradman of Australian politics being Prime Minister for a continuous period almost twice as long as his nearest rival. Howard doesn’t aspire to the levels of Menzies
– age is against him if nothing else - but he does measure himself against Malcolm Fraser. Fraser won three elections and served for 7 years, 4 months. Were Howard to win the
next election he would be able to equal Fraser’s record both in election wins and the length of his government. In cricket terms that would put him up there with, say, Steve Waugh.
But Howard seems to have lost his form, and perhaps his confidence. He appears to be obsessed with scrambling through the next election by whatever means rather than playing each ball as it comes as well as he can.
I want to look at two things which demonstrate this attitude and the problems it leads to. The first is the budget. This is a budget that had no bounce. Newspoll
measured a slight temporary increase in the government’s popularity. Morgan barely budged. One of the reasons that there was no lift from the budget was that many of its measures –
like increases in funding for defence and rural roads; and decreases in various tax rates – had already been announced. This is a sign of the crisis-management style that the Howard government has adopted. It tries to score off every issue
rather than playing them in the overall context of the game. If Howard had
held off on some of these issues he could have grouped them for maximum
effect in the budget and achieved a better score.
Costello’s delivery was also very flat. This may well stem from the fact that he is now firmly eyeing up the captaincy of the Liberal Party team and has his mind elsewhere
than on budgets. In fact, this next election is not so much about the election of the third Howard government, but the election of the first Costello one. John Howard has announced that he will retire after the next election which means that
Peter Costello will become Liberal Party leader. This is a major strategic blunder. While Howard and Beazley are both relatively unloved by the electorate, Costello is a definite negative. Just as the Liberal Party in Opposition used to target Keating even when Hawke was the PM, expect the Labor Party to do the same to Costello; and with more
justification because in this case the deal is publicly visible.
The only logical explanation for this error appears to be that Howard decided that, for reasons of appearance, he would not involve himself in a secret leadership deal as did Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.
The budget also offered little vision. It is not fair to blame Howard for the increasing materialism of our society, but the 2001 Budget was squarely in the spirit of the times. Its biggest initiative was a bribe to the relatively rich elderly
voters known as "self-funded retirees". This group consists of those over the age of 65 who are too well-off to qualify for the pension. This is a group that as long as I can remember has been a solid voting base for the Liberal Party.
Howard is in a lot of trouble if he has to buy the support of this constituency.
The bribe was by way of a tax cut administered through an increase in their tax-free threshold. It means that a couple in this category who had managed to keep their income below $32,612 would pay no personal tax at all, unlike the rest of us.
On a return of 6% this couple would need to have assets in the bank of
$543,000, and would also probably own their own home - that is what I mean
by "relatively rich".
In his C D Kemp lecture of Tuesday 12th June, 2001, Employment Minister Tony Abbott recognised that Australia’s low tax threshold keeps many welfare beneficiaries
out of the work force by creating poverty traps. The question will surely be asked: "Why fix a poverty trap for people who have relative wealth but not for those who are struggling merely to get by?"
This policy is not likely to even help the government with the majority of over-65s because most of them are pensioners and received only a one-off payment of $300. As the election approaches I can hear talk back radio being flooded with
callers complaining that the government has yet again favoured the rich. Some might even float the conspiracy theory that the Prime Minister made the changes so he can take advantage of them when he becomes a "self-funded retiree" in
three years time.
The problem with the budget's lack of vision is that if the worth of a budget is reduced to a question of "What’s in it for me?" then no-one is ever happy. There is never enough money in the collective pot to pay everyone more than they are
already getting. As a result, whichever groups you fail to reward, you alienate. And even those groups who are rewarded can feel that they have not been rewarded well enough. If Howard is to succeed he has to establish an aura around the
government that makes his opponents "choke" – that aura that a successful team takes onto the field which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that they are winners. A key to establishing that in a political context is to produce an
understanding in the community that while some are being rewarded more than others we are all moving in the right direction. If a government can do that it can frame the debate in terms which exclude its opponents, even when those opponents are
courting those who did less well from a policy change.
In the end the budget was a low-scoring affair where the government essentially got itself out by treading on its own wicket.
The second issue is Howard’s handling of the Queensland problem. The Queensland Liberal Party is completely dysfunctional. It has no money and no friends. As a result the Liberal Party’s federal executive (for which read the Prime
Minister) decided to intervene. Originally this was to have been an extensive affair. An ultimatum was given to the power brokers who run the Queensland branch that they could either cooperate and have some say, or obstruct and lose out all
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