Move over Howard

<a href="http://www.newstatesman.com/200708160024">Kevin Rudd</a> is poised to become Australia's ne

If the opinion polling is any guide, Australian electors will throw out the conservative Liberal-National Party Government at this Saturday’s election.

Indeed, Labor will achieve a landslide. The Prime Minister, John Howard, after almost twelve years in office and four election victories, will lose his seat, becoming only the second Prime Minister, and the first since 1929, to suffer this form of political humiliation.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd, fresh, smart, almost twenty years younger than his sixty-eight year old rival and proclaiming the need for ‘new leadership’, will head a government with a commanding majority. Labor will rule not just nationally but in all States and Territories, a feat performed just once and for less than a year by the conservative parties almost forty years ago.

That’s if the opinion polling is any guide.

This rider is important although, on the face of it, seems barely warranted. Every poll this year has shown the Labor Opposition with a substantial majority, often eight or ten per cent ahead of its rival and sometimes more. The gap has narrowed slightly during the campaign, but not enough to provide Howard any comfort.

We’re talking about the difference between electoral annihilation and mere slaughter. The Coalition has run a poor campaign, putting each disaster behind it only in the process of managing the next. Rudd’s ship, by way of contrast, has been steady and reassuring. While being nearly as profligate in his spending promises as Howard, the ex-diplomat has stressed his fiscal conservatism and won plaudits for it.

The bookmakers – ever reliable in a gambling nation as guides to an election result – have Labor as very short-priced favourites. And there’s an emerging consensus that public opinion is now ‘stuck’ - that most electors are not so much angry with the government as tired of it, that people have simply stopped listening.

In Australian politics, this is called the ‘It’s Time’ factor, after Gough Whitlam’s electoral slogan of 1972; a sense that the government has been in power long enough. So electors have decided merely to replace one safe pair of hands with another or, to borrow Rudd’s own terminology, to get rid of a nerd and elect a geek.

So why the rider about the reliability of opinion polling? It’s perhaps a testament to continuing wariness about the extraordinary political skills of Australia’s current Prime Minister, a wily operator who won the admiration of Tony Blair for his deftness in holding off his principal leadership rival, the Treasurer Peter Costello.

Howard has been in lots of trouble before previous elections but the old warhorse always recovered. Even those boldest in their predictions of Labor victory are troubled by Howard’s dogged refusal to surrender, a sense that he might, have an ace up his sleeve - whether or not, as was said of Gladstone, he believes God put it there.

There’s bewilderment in the government and among many political commentators at what must have seemed an unlikely turn of events less than a year ago when Rudd won the leadership of the Labor Opposition from a faltering Kim Beazley. Indeed, the trend in opinion polling overturns many myths about Australian politics, such as that governments only lose elections when the economy is in a mess. But rising interest rates are alarming electors with large mortgages and the slowness of Howard to respond to climate change has disillusioned many voters, especially the young.

The government’s radical reform of industrial relations, by removing many traditional forms of workplace protection, has been deeply unpopular. These are the major areas of difference between the two parties and they are where Labor is likely, when it wins on Saturday, to set itself apart from its conservative predecessor.