Set to be flushed away forever

The political landscape changed last week. John Howard didnt pick it, but Kevin Rudd did. And that could be the story of the 2007 election.

As the leaders prepared for their campaign launches, the aftershocks from the Melbourne Cup day interest-rate rise were still reverberating through the media. Bankers and economists were warning of further rises to come, and urging the party leaders to go easy on the promises: inflation was on the rise and reckless public spending could only make it worse.

And the politicians at least appeared to be listening. Finance Minister Nick Minchin said the governments approach would be restrained and prudent. He implied that there would be no repeat of 2004, when Howard, as Peter Costello recalled, was offered a menu of possible spending promises and asked to choose. Slavering, he scoffed the lot entre, main course, dessert and the vegetarian option.

In just 20 minutes of his speech, the Dear Leader handed out $6 billion. In the more edgy economic climate of 2007, this must not happen again. And it didnt: this time Howard dispersed not $6 billion, but nearly $10 billion.

And the reaction was swift and brutal. Even as the Howard entourage was making a triumphal exit from Brisbanes Lyric Theatre, the economic commentators were warning that a lot of the promises would have to be declared non-core.

Howard and Costello blustered: there was still a surplus, it had been kept at one per cent of GDP, as promised: but when you did the sums, it hadnt another broken promise. Not that it mattered: what was important was that huge sums of money were being pumped into an economy which was already running at full capacity, just when the Reserve Bank was trying to soak some the existing money up.

Indeed, the bank had issued a statement only hours before Howards splurge warning that public spending had to be kept in check. In this context Howards claim that his spending wasnt really inflationary, and in particular that his $35 billion tax cut shouldnt be counted, sounded not so much deceitful as deranged: even he must have heard of the concept of demand inflation some time during his (admittedly disastrous) stint as Treasurer.

Howards approach was widely derided as cynical and irresponsible, and not only by the boffins; the realisation that the days of unrestricted growth were over was becoming mainstream. At which point, enter Kevin Rudd, looking frugal.

In the grand scheme of things the fact that Rudd promised some $7 billion less than Howard was hardly significant: his total was still well over $50 billion, and he could hardly pretend that this was not going to add to the pressure on inflation and interest rates. But the symbolism was terrific. Suddenly Rudd really was the economic conservative, the safe pair of hands, the one you could trust.

For months his claims had been mocked, particularly by Costello: Take no notice of what he says, Costello had smirked, look at what he does. Well, yes, and lets look at what Howard does, too. The comparison gave added point to another of Rudds lines: he was in it for the long haul, while Howard was retiring and wouldnt be around to clean up the mess.

By the end of the week the government was looking tired and disorganised, and the realists admitted it: they now acknowledged that they were going to lose a lot of seats, and that the only hope was that they might just hang on to a couple of marginals. But they were still bitter and resentful about it; they had, insisted Tony Abbott, been a good government, and yet they were being punished.

And then the Auditor-General released his report on the Regional Partnership Scheme, which he found had been horrendously rorted for years, and transformed into something like a National Party slush fund. When bureaucrats had rejected grants to National electorates as having failed the basic criteria, the (National) ministers had gone ahead regardless; amounts ranging from a few thousand to more than a million had been poured into what turned out to be bottomless cesspits.

The Sydney Morning Herald headline said it all: The bottom of the pork barrel. The Auditor-General himself was a little more measured: The operation of the scheme fell short of acceptable standards of public administration. But one felt he had made his point.

This was not corruption on the grand scale, like the theft of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for political advertising; it was more like tickling the till for a few bucks to pay for a gambling habit. But somehow its pettiness only made it worse just another example of how tawdry and grubby the Howard gang had become after far too long in office.

Mark Vaile, the Nationals godfather, appeared nonplussed at the public outrage: well sure, from time to time ministers over-ruled bureaucrats, thats what ministers were for. And if the decisions overwhelmingly favoured coalition electorates, that was because there were more of them, particularly in the bush.

He even suggested that there was something wrong and sinister about the Auditor-General publishing his report during an election campaign, and proceeded to knock off another $900,000 worth of hand-outs for his own electorate: this was not by-passing the system, he averred solemnly, it was pre-election promise, which was something altogether different. The distinction eluded most voters; on the other side of the continent a schoolteacher was roughly handled by police when he attempted to hand the Prime Minister a pooper-scooper.

Last Friday The Sydney Morning Herald ran an unflattering picture of the Dear Leader with the caption: This man is one week from oblivion. All the signs are that this was correct. I wont rest easily until he is securely buried at the crossroads with a wooden stake through his heart. But it is now possible, at last, to again see a glimmer of the light on the hill.

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