A senior press-gallery journalist, one who frequently accompanies the prime minister on his foreign trips, once informed a gathering at which I was present that when John Howard visited Italy he declined an invitation to view the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He preferred to stay in his hotel room, discussing Australian political manoeuvres on the phone. Although this story might be apocryphal, it is not difficult to believe. Beyond family and cricket, Howard is the kind of man whose mind is only seriously absorbed by one thing: politics. With him, the interest in and desire for power is so pure and undiluted that it has the quality of a carnal passion. For him, all roads lead to Canberra, not to Rome.
Since Kevin Rudd was elected leader of the Opposition last December, the opinion polls have invariably found Labor holding a massive two-party-preferred lead over the Coalition of between 10% and 20%. Such a lead by one federal party in the polls, of this size and for this long, has not been witnessed in recent political history. No one knows why it has happened. No one knows whether this kind of polling will last. Only one thing is certain: the prime minister is presently a very worried man. If Howard had retired in the middle of last year, his reputation as one of the most politically successful prime ministers in our history would have been assured. If his government is decisively defeated later this year, the historians will be considerably more parsimonious in their praise.
I once compared the prime minister to an ageing mountain goat. It was not meant unkindly. He has a remarkable capacity to keep his footing even on the most treacherous political slopes. Once or twice in the early days of the Latham Labor leadership, Howard stumbled - over parliamentarians' superannuation, for example - but quickly regained his balance. Only this year has he fallen badly. His reaction has been fascinating to observe.
At first, the prime minister decided to do to Kevin Rudd what he had done to Mark Latham, to diminish reputation by attacking character. The public learnt that Rudd had shown his unfitness to become prime minister because on one occasion in 2005 he had met with the disgraced former West Australian premier Brian Burke; because on another he might have misremembered some details concerning his family's eviction from their home following the death of his father, when Kevin was 11; and because on yet another his wife, who ran a very successful business, had made some inadvertent errors in the payment of some staff. With Latham the tactic worked. With Rudd, interestingly, it did not. Not only did he emerge with his reputation intact; if anything, it was enhanced. Rudd tackled the problem surrounding his wife with delicacy, good humour and tact. When he told the public that Therese Rein was a strong and independent person who made decisions for herself, he was readily believed. The family crisis opened a window onto a contemporary Australian marriage both companionate and attractive. By comparison the obviously successful Howard marriage looked decidedly old-fashioned. Political culture often works in strange ways. It might have been at precisely this moment that the thought about Kevin Rudd as the new generation's John Howard penetrated the national imagination. The story put about last month by some unidentified unit of the Liberal Party's dirt machine - about Rudd's 2003 visit to a New York strip club - accordingly did him no obvious harm.
After the mud came the money. It was obvious that the new industrial-relations laws would be one of the most important issues of the coming election. The government decided to use many millions of taxpayers' dollars to fund a protracted advertising drive - supposedly providing the public with information, but in reality an anti-Labor pre-election campaign. This was not the only instance of the Howard government's lavish use of public money for purposes of this kind.
The government is keen to retain the Tasmanian seat of Braddon, which it holds by a margin of a little over 1%. To help its cause it offered at least $135 million over the next three years to keep open an expensive hospital near Devonport. The Tasmanian government and every independent study that has been conducted have concluded that the Mersey Hospital must be closed. Everyone knows that north-west Tasmania cannot sustain two first-rate hospitals. The offer was populist politics and petty financial corruption at their worst.
The government is understandably even keener to retain its dominant position in Queensland. There could be nothing more straightforward in the Australian federal system than state governments' responsibility for the management of local councils. Yet, because some of the Beattie government's current amalgamation proposals are known to be unpopular, in its scramble for electoral advantage the Howard government has offered disgruntled councils Commonwealth funding for amalgamation referendums. This is not merely a blatant misuse of taxpayer funds for party-political purposes. It also threatens the good name of one of Australia's most impartial political institutions, the Australian Electoral Commission, which will be obliged by the Howard government to collude in its arguably unconstitutional and plainly grubby work.
It was obvious that mud and money were not enough. In late May, the prime minister admitted at a parliamentary party meeting that he had no rabbit left to pull out of the hat. The comment instantly leaked. Its chief interest was not as evidence of growing desperation. That was obvious by now. It was interesting rather because it revealed what Howard's characteristically disciplined rhetoric normally conceals: how his political mind actually works. Since bemoaning the want of political rabbits, two promising possibilities have magically appeared.
In June, in an atmosphere of deliberately confected drama, the prime minister announced a state of national emergency over the question of the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children - something analysed in a report delivered several weeks earlier to the Northern Territory government. Howard likened the situation to a natural catastrophe. He promised to send in troops, police, doctors and administrators. Even for those who generally welcomed the intervention as long overdue, there were aspects of it that seemed odd. Was it coincidence that after 11 years of relative neglect, a national emergency in the remote communities was discovered four or five months before an election? In planning the intervention, why was so little effort made to consult the affected communities? In what way exactly did the end of the permit system or the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land help protect children from abuse? And why was complex legislation rushed into parliament without time for debate, and without even the courtesy of giving those affected any real opportunity to respond?
All this raised suspicions. Although he probably overestimated the electoral salience of the issue, the prime minister surmised correctly that his intervention would receive broad popular approval. Was he hoping that the insensitivity of its introduction might provoke the opposition of Labor? Was he hoping to be able to claim that for all Labor's supposed interest in symbolic issues surrounding Aborigines, when it came to practical steps to save little children from sexual abuse only his government would act? Did he hope to be able to campaign on the theme that Rudd's Labor was ‘weak on child protection' and ‘soft on Aboriginal sexual crime'?
In July, failed terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London occurred. A reasonably remote connection emerged between those arrested there and Dr Mohamed Haneef, a Gold Coast doctor on a work visa. In the previous year, Haneef had given a SIM card to one of the alleged plotters, a second cousin. It was not surprising that Haneef was investigated by the Australian Federal Police, or prevented from flying to India on a one-way ticket, or even that he was detained for a fortnight for questioning. It was surprising that at the end of the interrogation period he was charged with a terrorist offence, given what we now know about the feeble and error-ridden quality of the evidence. Yet there is no reason to believe that any of this had been shaped by political forces.
Politics, however, did determine what happened next: the decision taken to subvert the bail decision of the court and, by withdrawing Haneef's work visa on character grounds, effectively to imprison him in a detention centre until the conclusion of his trial. Although announced by the immigration minister, the decision to revoke the visa was clearly made by the government. We know that the case was discussed by the National Security Committee of Cabinet. It is almost inconceivable that Kevin Andrews would have made a decision of such political importance without in-principle prime ministerial knowledge and support.
Suspicions once more were raised. Was it not likely that, before the case altogether collapsed due to the work of the media and lawyers, the prime minister hoped that Dr Haneef would prove to be the rabbit of his dreams, that is to say, that Rudd's Labor would not be able to support the indefinite imprisonment of a man to whom a court had offered bail? Was it not likely that, just as in 2001 over the Tampa, when Howard had with such spectacular success been able to convince the electorate that Kim Beazley was ‘soft on border control', so now, in the build-up to the election of 2007, he would be able to convince the people that Kevin Rudd was ‘soft on terror'?
No doubt to the immense frustration of the prime minister, on one occasion after another Rudd refused to enter Howard's traps. Labor criticised the government's workplace-relations advertising blitz but did not become obsessed. Some reports suggested that anyhow the campaign was failing, exciting more fears than it allayed. Sometimes there appears to me to be a God in Heaven with an interest in Australian domestic politics. One of the last advertisements showed a concerned father. It turned out that he was played by an actor who allegedly, in real life, had failed to pay what was owed to three young men, including his own estranged son.
Rather than refusing outright to deny support to the Mersey Hospital, Rudd worked with the Lennon government on an equally costly but genuinely rational plan for the delivery of health to the people of Tasmania's north-west. And rather than side with the Queensland premier, Peter Beattie, over the council referendums, thus allowing the prime minister to claim that they formed a sinister two-man team and that an all-Labor Australia would be a disaster for the people, Rudd announced that, as he had always opposed the amalgamations, the Howard referendums had his full support.
Even more significantly, Rudd quickly shot the rabbits Howard had pulled from his hat. Despite all the flaws in the manner of its introduction, and despite the considerable misgivings of the Labor backbench, Kevin Rudd gave the Northern Territory intervention his party's unambiguous support. Labor could not be accused of being ‘weak on Aboriginal child abuse'. And despite the outrageous subversion of the court's bail decision and the ensuing revelations concerning the comical errors in the prosecution's case, Rudd supported the government without equivocation, until the Haneef case had almost altogether collapsed without his help. The prime minister was so frustrated by this behaviour - surely an honourable Opposition leader would have fallen into his trap? - that he now accused Kevin Rudd of cunningly using Peter Beattie as a surrogate to express what he really believed. This was self-evidently absurd. Labor could not be accused of being ‘soft on terror', as the prime minister, in his desperation, had hoped.
It was not only the prime minister who was frustrated by the behaviour of the Labor leader. So were very many people who belong to that amorphous but still very real grouping of opinion called the Left. Many of its members began to think like this. Kevin Rudd was so socially conservative and politically cautious a Labor leader that he was not willing to oppose Howard even on issues as ideologically significant and morally straightforward as the Northern Territory intervention or the handling of the Haneef case. Why did he and his party deserve support? Was it not clear that for those who cared about the most important contemporary causes - like Aboriginal reconciliation, or civil liberties in the age of terrorism, and so much else besides - the choice was now between John Howard's Tweedledee and Kevin Rudd's Tweedledum, that is to say, between almost equally unpalatable alternatives?
There are two reasons why this way of looking at present politics seems to me misguided. The differences between the government and the Opposition are very real. If Rudd is elected, Australia will at long last join the world in the overwhelmingly most important issue of our age: the fight against global warming. If Rudd is elected, the kind of mimetic foreign policy that followed our blank-cheque endorsement of the United States in every twist and turn of policy in its War on Terror, which led us into the catastrophe of Iraq, will be reversed. If Rudd is elected, the industrial-relations laws will be softened and humanised. If Rudd is elected, universities will most likely be more generously funded, as they need to be. If Rudd is elected, those right-wing cultural warriors strategically positioned inside the ABC and the National Museum (Windschuttle, Brunton, Albrechtsen, Barnett and Christopher Pearson) will be gradually replaced. If Rudd is elected, some elements of the former independence of the public service and of the former vigour of the parliament might be revived. If Rudd is elected, the gulf between the government and the country's creative artists will be bridged. Howard's election showed that governments change cultures in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways. Under Rudd, Australia will become a different and, in my view, a better and more generous country.
As importantly, the analysis of the Rudd phenomenon as a kind of betrayal rests on a characteristic form of left-wing blindness: the failure to have noticed one of the most prominent features of most contemporary Western democracies. This is the clash between the values of ‘ordinary people' and the values of the prosperous, professional ‘elites' to which most of the left-wing critics of Rudd presently belong. It is true that Rudd failed to do what the Left advised over the Northern Territory intervention and the case of Dr Haneef. He failed to follow that advice not because he was indifferent to the question of Aboriginal reconciliation and civil liberties. Why, then? He failed to follow it in part because he instinctively grasped the unparalleled capacity of the prime minister to identify and exploit the kind of issues over which the Opposition could be wedged and, even more importantly, because he is an intelligent man who has worked out that a politics too far removed from the moral instincts of ordinary people will not succeed in the long run. Howard cannot wedge Labor on industrial-relations law because, on balance, on that issue ordinary people are on Labor's side. Howard can wedge Labor on issues like Aboriginal reconciliation or civil liberties, because on ideologically sensitive issues such as these the values gulf between the left-leaning elites and the ordinary citizenry remains very wide. Kevin Rudd understands this. Phillip Adams does not. On this question, Rudd is right.