As federal parliament began its final session of 2006, John Howard must have been feeling a bit like his beloved Australian cricket team: all he had to do to win was turn up. The past three elections had proved conclusively that he was not only omnipotent but invincible, and quite possibly immortal as well. Each time, about a year out from polling day, the pundits had come up with a list of reasons why his government should not, could not survive, and each time he had proved them wrong, freeing himself with one mighty bound.
In 1998, it was the threat of the GST which was supposed to prove fatal. In 2001, it was the aftermath of the GST and all its consequences. In 2004, it was the age factor, combined with the galvanising effect of the young pretender, Mark Latham, who had replaced the very comfortable Simon Whatsisname. Well, he had seen them all off, and the prospect of another round against the resurrected but twice-defeated Kim Beazley was just a stroll in the grounds of Kirribilli House.
And even when the Labor Party finally put sense ahead of sentiment and installed what was ominously called its ‘dream team' (remember, always remember, the last dream team, headed by Alexander Downer), there was absolutely no cause for alarm. Sure, the odd couple of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard could expect a honeymoon with media and public, but once the campaign proper got underway and reality intervened, it would be the usual cakewalk. After all, he was invincible - and what's more, the polls indicated that the voters believed it.
For weeks, they had shown Labor comfortably ahead, in some cases with a two-party-preferred lead as high as 54-46, a win of landslide dimensions. Yet the same polls showed that the punters regarded a Coalition win as all but certain, by a margin of well over 60%. This suggested that a large number of intending Labor voters were already resigned to defeat, that they knew in their hearts that they couldn't win and therefore didn't deserve to. As the fateful day approached, it should be relatively easy to convince them that their moral duty was to return to the fold and acknowledge their Dear Leader as the only possible choice. Anything else would be a violation of natural law.
Even the handful of leftish commentators hanging on to positions in the mainstream media agreed: the best Rudd could hope for in 2007 was to make up a bit of ground and prepare for a serious tilt at Howard's successor, next time around. Peter Costello, Brendan Nelson, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull: all of them were vulnerable. But Howard himself could not be beaten. And of course, this scenario assumed that Howard would, in fact, retire sometime in the next term. His boosters were already urging him to stay on to beat Sir Robert Menzies' record of 17 years, which would mean at least one further go. And he shall reign for ever and ever.
Thus, Kevin Rudd's task is not just to defeat a man, a fellow politician - albeit the wiliest and most ruthless of his generation. He is up against a legend, an elemental force. While a desperate party has pinned its last hope on him, few of his supporters really, truly believe he can pull it off. And yet, and yet ... he just might. There are factors which suggest that this election will not be the foregone conclusion of popular belief.
The sociologist Hugh Mackay identifies three conditions needed for a change of government in Australia. The first, of course, is The Economy, Stupid. This is the sine qua non: a substantial proportion of the electorate needs to feel hard done by. There used to be a theory that indeed governments changed when things were going really badly, but when things were going really well, the voters also sometimes felt confident enough to take a punt on something different. These days, the conservatives have tried to switch this by proposing that even when times are tough, those worst affected will tend to stick with the devils they know, trusting to their experience rather than risking a new and unknown lot taking over. But history shows that the original theory remains the most reliable: economy goes bad, government falls.
John Howard will tell you that the economy is not going bad, and in broad terms, he is right: while there is a bit of fraying at the edges, the basics remain sound and a lot of people continue to do very nicely out of his government, thank you. But there are quite a few who never have, and rather more who are becoming worried that the good times are coming to an end. Three interest-rate rises since the last election have caused a lot of pain, and any more will push many mortgagees over the edge, especially as they no longer have the security blanket of skyrocketing property values to cling to.
Moralists will scold that it is all down to their own greed: they should never have borrowed so much in the first place. The mortgagees will reply, with some justification, that Howard and Costello offered them grants, christened them Aspirationals and told them to go for broke - and, of course, promised to keep interest rates low. All will be anxious and unhappy, and many will feel betrayed.
Then there is the preposterously named WorkChoices scheme, sprung without warning on the unprepared populace when Howard realised that he could get it through the Senate. WorkChoices was meant to work like the GST: first people would oppose it, then they could be convinced that it was good for the nation, and eventually they would accept that life went on and you couldn't unscramble eggs.
But it hasn't quite worked out like that. Cases of employers taking advantage of the new system are still coming up weekly, and many of what workers believe are blatant abuses of their rights turn out to be acceptable, or even compulsory, under Howard's Law. It is getting to the stage where most employees at least know someone who has suffered under the new system, and are worried that they might be next. Howard's assurance that no good employer would mistreat his workers, especially during a shortage of labour, has proved hollow; and in any case, it's not the good employers we are worried about: it's the bastards, who were previously held in check by the old industrial-relations system. Now it appears that they have been given their heads, and we don't like it.
But financial pressures and job insecurity are not enough in themselves to remove an entrenched government. This is where Mackay's other conditions for change come in. The second is what is misleadingly called the It's Time factor: the government must be seen to have outlived its usefulness, to be stale and ineffectual, perhaps exhibiting arrogance and even a whiff of corruption. Long-term governments are more likely to show the symptoms, but the problem is more one of attitude (and competence) than longevity.
There are certainly indications that Howard and his team are approaching that state: the blunders are more frequent, the discipline among both ministers and backbenchers weaker, the dismissal of accountability and previous political convention more blatant. The administration is not yet seriously on the nose, and Howard himself remains securely above it all on his self-made pedestal; but combined with the general unease, this fall in standards might just be enough to tip the balance - if, and only if, Mackay's third condition is met.
This is that the Opposition must be seen as a genuine alternative, ready to rule and inspiring the confidence of the electorate. For many years, it clearly hasn't been, and Kevin Rudd and his team have very little time to turn the perception around. The old lines about inexperience and bowing to union demands are already being trotted out, with ambitious young Liberals vying for the title of chief muckraker. Greg Hunt says that Labor policy is being dictated by Noam Chomsky, while Chris Pine claims that behind Rudd hides a horde of wild-eyed socialists preparing to turn the country into a totalitarian wilderness. As usual, this aspect of the contest will be unedifying.
But there are signs that Rudd is a much tougher contender than his mild-mannered-evangelical façade indicates. His record shows that he has the streak of mongrel Beazley lacked, and his articles for this magazine (among other publications) have demonstrated that the fire burns bright within him. The Australian's cartoonist, Bill Leak, likes to depict him as Tintin; but it is worth remembering that the comic-book hero took on the hard men and won.
John Howard has suggested that the next election will be the battle of the nerds; he would like to portray both himself and his opponent as ordinary and boring. This is disingenuous: ordinary people do not get to lead major political parties. But Rudd and Howard have much in common, not the least being an overweening ambition and a ruthless will to win. The battle of the nerds will not be pretty to watch, but it will be unremitting. And in the right conditions, with a bit of luck, the Ruddster could just upset the Man of Steel.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription