JACK WATERFORD July 04, 2012
Trust factor ... John Howard's 2004 election campaign could prove a useful example for Julia Gillard. Photo: Kate Geraghty
A Howard most did not believe turned the tables on Labor in 2004 by making trust the point. Could Gillard do that to Abbott?
Tony Abbott has been very successful in painting Julia Gillard as a liar and person who cannot be trusted. Footage of the broken promise about a carbon tax is on constant replay. And he has put his own credibility on the line by insisting that the carbon tax will strangle the Australian economy.
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He may well be proven wrong about the latter. Julia Gillard hopes this will cause doubts about his other alarums, allegations and confident assertions.
But even if voters recognise that he has been guilty of massive exaggeration about the impact of carbon pricing, his undermining of Gillard's credibility will still be damaging Labor in general and Gillard in particular. Gillard's credibility does not necessarily rise as his falls. So damaged is she, that some despair of her ability to convince voters of anything.
Is her position retrievable? Curiously, her best option could involve copying the boldness of Abbott's hero, John Howard, by making the principal issue of the next year one of trustworthiness. It would be a desperate gamble, but then again, things are desperate. And Howard pulled it off.
Howard had very serious credibility problems in 2004. The public had learnt that babies had not in fact been thrown overboard, as Howard and other ministers had claimed during the 2001 election. Howard had gone to war in Iraq claiming incontrovertible evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but no such weapons had been found. Over these and other matters the Howard government was getting a bad reputation for lying, cover-up, concealment, and gilding and suppressing the truth. There was conscious mendacity; but also carelessness by people who had become too smug and comfortable from being in government too long.
In late 2003, a desperate Labor Party had gambled with Mark Latham, who, to the surprise of many had remained disciplined, had repeatedly rattled and wrong-footed Howard, and seemed to gain in credibility and stature. He was hammering the Liberals over credibility and trust. Howard was able to duck some of the charges - because Howard's office had been organised around deniability and a lack of transparency. With inconvenient facts, Howard insisted that he had not known, even if his office had. But opinion polls suggested that the public watched his stonewalling and drew its own conclusions: it did not believe his denials. One might not have thought that trust and credibility was not the Liberal Party's best campaigning asset.
Yet when Howard announced the election that year, he said it was about trust. About who one could trust. About who had credibility.
Yet in framing the issue, he used great skill (and presumably very good advice from Mark Textor) to change it to his advantage. The questions he said were about reliability, not credibility.
''Who do you trust to keep interest rates low?'' he asked. ''Who do you trust to keep the budget in surplus?'' Did one, in effect, trust a reliable old firm that had kept the economy in order, or some amateurs who would probably mess everything up?
At first Labor could not believe its luck. Fancy Howard campaigning on his weakest point, they said. The public had already decided, rightly or wrongly, that Howard was a liar, and here he was saying that the electorate was about trust, about who who could be believed.
Howard was riding on his government's economic success, and suggesting that the public should doubt that Labor had the leadership, the discipline, or the inclination to run the economy as effectively. Economic responsibility was Labor's weak point, thanks to his success in painting the Keating government as reckless and profligate over its ''black hole''.
He was switching the issue away from credibility on matters of fact to whether voters believed they knew and understood him, and whether it trusted his style of management.
This built on the fact that most Australians ''knew'' Howard, and had seen him in action for years. He was pretty much incapable of surprising them.
A part of this knowing him included the knowledge that Howard was a politician and a skilful one. Australians are fairly cynical about politicians, and do not always believe what they say, or expect that they will fulfil their promises. That distrust extended to Howard. But voters still believed that they understood, pretty much, who he was and where he came from.
The deadly thing about Howard's inversion of the question was the sudden focus it put on Latham. What did we know about him? How much did we, could we, trust him? Not in the sense of believing his assertions of fact but in the sense of being fairly confident that we knew he would or could do the right thing in a crisis? Did we know him at all? Did we have a feeling for him?
Latham had in fact been quite disciplined since becoming leader, but had a reputation for being erratic, for being rude and aggressive, even, allegedly, for using physical force against others. There was a strong innuendo of his being volatile, a powder keg, as well as of a risk of his alienating Australia's friends and allies, particularly the United States. On paper, he was promising conservative economic management, but was he the sort of man who could, or would, deliver?
''It was an effective approach which worked because it was based on reality,'' Howard reflected in Lazarus Rising. ''We had managed the economy well and I had found a pithy way of telling people that. Latham never found an answer, and, as the campaign progressed, doubts about him grew.
''There was a tinge of personal aggression in his style which bothered people, particularly some women. His infamous bullying handshake with me, three days out from the poll, may have shifted votes. I knew it was coming because he had done the same thing before the start of our leaders' debate at the beginning of the campaign and therefore it was not televised.''
Could a back-to-the-wall Gillard succeed with a similar tactic against Abbott? Gillard is now a known quantity to a significant part of the population, in a way that Abbott, despite a longer public life is not. The public has never much warmed to Gillard, and does not much believe anything she says. But she's been around long enough to be predictable, perhaps disappointing, boring and uninspiring, but also fairly safe. No one really thinks she's a radical or a ratbag. Indeed they give her a certain credit for doggedness, and could, if Labor worked on it well enough, give her the credit she deserves for economic management. Some dread more of her, and in that sense yearn for a change, but no one really fears she will lead us over a cliff.
By contrast even some Liberals fear, distrust and suspect Abbott. We don't really know him. He is given to exaggeration, unconvincing on economic matters, an admitted dissembler on economic matters, and for some at least, has something of the same aura of menace as Latham. We don't know him. Can he be portrayed as too much of a gamble? Hard to say, but it's almost the only tactic I could imagine for a party so far behind as Labor.
Jack Waterford is The Canberra Times' Editor-at-large.