It is still early days, but the signs say that Labor could well win the next federal election. Labor under Rudd looks good, the Coalition under Howard look tired and confused, and the media packs are closing in. Significantly, the leadership issue is at last working for Labor and against the Coalition.
And what an important election it is. As Kim Beazely said, the party that loses this election is in real trouble. For Labor it would be five in a row, and despite governing in all states, the threat of national irrelevance. For the Liberals, hardly a national party at all these days, it would mean the loss of their only electoral stronghold.
There are three main reasons why the Liberals are in trouble.
First, there is their own leadership: Howard is growing old and looks increasingly tired. The long-standing alternatives - Costello, Abbott, maybe even still Downer - have displayed their arrogance and distance from everyday Australia too often to be credible. The new kid, Malcolm Turnbull, seems like a better chance, but he would have to overcome the Howard-Costello legacy to establish his own style. Ministerial talent has always been paper thin in the Coalition, and now, with the leadership failing, this matters.
Second, there is Labor’s leadership: Kevin Rudd has been good, not overdoing the self-satisfaction, reasonably consistent, on the ball and orientated towards positive policy changes.
The ministers, in particular Gillard and Garrett, look fresh and ready for the big challenges, while even the machine men like Conroy, Smith and Swan look like they have their minds on the job, and not the next factional opportunity. Their federal parliamentary personnel appear almost good enough to outweigh Labor’s real problem, a corrupt, obsolete party system.
And third, and ultimately most importantly, history has turned against John Howard.
Howard was elected just as the economy was turning up, largely due to two main factors. The first was the economic reforms instituted by the preceding Labor governments. The second was the commodities boom due in large part to the most amazing economic story of recent times, the rise and rise of newly capitalist China.
Among other things, Labor’s economic reforms opened up Australia to overseas investment and structurally weakened the union movement. Both of these developments increased the possibilities of wealth creation, albeit to the overwhelming advantage of the wealthy.
This trend exactly suited Howard’s governmental priorities, and he competently pursued this agenda, to the cost of alternative concerns. Concerns like the environment or Indigenous issues; and to the cost of those less well off, like those not already owning a home, or needing effective medical or educational assistance.
Howard was further assisted when an extremely conservative president was elected in the world’s major power, the US. With the so-called “war on terror” a new “them-or-us” Cold War was launched (which also defused the incipient US-China rivalry, allowing the Chinese boom to continue).
Howard simply attached all major foreign policy to the American wagon, with profound effects for our standing in the region and our approach to such things as global warming. The war in Iraq, which brought the UK into an Anglophone troika, solidified Howard’s position, since Britain still wields powerful cultural weight within Australia.