Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

Politics: a pinch of luck and a splash of good timing

Good politics, like good comedy, relies a lot on timing. An idea that will leave them laughing and cheering on the right night can turn into a lead balloon a week later.

Successful politicians are very aware of this, and plan their announcements accordingly. That master of the one-liner, the king of buffo John Bubbles Howard, used to be spot on: for example his misappropriation of Kirribilli House took place immediately after his first win, allowing the enormity of it to be glossed over as part of the victory party.

The never-ever GST was resurrected shortly after an election, giving him three years of taxpayer-funded propaganda to convince the public of its inevitability before they had to vote again. His belated acceptance of Asian immigration happily coincided with the arrival of large numbers of Chinese Australians as a significant force in his own electorate.

But lately there are disturbing signs that the gagmeister may be losing his touch. Two performances last week were so wildly out of sync with the times that the critics are declaring both flops even before their official opening nights.

The first was the Great Recruitment Drive, presented with flourish and fanfare as the master plan to bring our overstretched army up to scratch. This involves an additional two battalions, or about 2600 extra soldiers these on top of the 1500 to be recruited under an initiative already announced.

It would be hard to get 4000 Australians into uniform at any time, but 2006 seems a particularly inopportune year. We have, as Howard keeps reminding us, the closest thing to full employment since he came to office; there is no pool of desperate men and women to draw upon. Moreover, the shortage of skilled tradesmen has finally forced the government to offer tempting incentives for new apprentices, precisely the kind of young, fit recruits the army would be targeting. Add to this the governments current predilection for committing its forces to unpopular, dangerous and largely irrelevant overseas conflict and it will come as no surprise that there has not been a stampede to enlist.

The advertising campaign to come will emphasise better pay and conditions, but realising that in itself may not be enough, the army has announced that it will ease conditions of entry. This in practice means that the old, the fat, the asthmatic, the pierced, the tattooed, and the drug-addled will also be invited into boot camp. It remains difficult to see too many of them seizing the military as their career of choice.

Howard himself seems to have lost some of his enthusiasm. It was noteworthy that when our latest contingent of troops left for Afghanistan, Howard was for once not around to give them a well-televised farewell. Has that well-tuned rodent nose sensed a change in the mood?

And then, of course, came Telstra. The fateful decision could no longer be put off, but it was the worst possible time to take the plunge. Optimists said that the shares had fallen so far they were now bumping along the bottom; they couldnt possibly go down any further. Realists smiled knowingly. Pessimists predicted another drop as soon as the governments $8 billion worth (however many that turned out to be) hit the market.

And of course even when they are finally disposed of, there will still be about twice that number resting in the Future Fund, lowering over the stock exchanges as a constant damper on Telstras share price. The government has spent years deploring the idea that Telstras ownership was split between public and private: you could not, ranted Howard and his colleagues, be half pregnant. On that analogy the latest move does nothing to resolve the situation: through its Future Fund the government remains by far the biggest shareholder we are still either one third or two thirds pregnant, depending on your point of view.

Unsurprisingly, Howard has not repeated his gratuitous plug at the last Telstra sale, when he urged the mums and dads (presumably he thought the daughters and sons would be too wary) to snap up this opportunity of a lifetime. Nick Minchin, the sinister Minister for Finance, has said that it would be illegal for him to act as a spruiker (then why not for Howard last time?) and has attempted to gag Telstras executives from going public about their concerns, which may well lead to the illegal concealment of material relevant to the float. Minchin has also signalled a sweetener to persuade the suckers who bought Telstra II to return to the shark-infested waters; the fact that he realises a bribe is necessary suggests that he is not exactly gung-ho about the deal himself.

So just who is going to buy the wretched things? Even with the price at rock bottom, they dont look too attractive with a full third of the companys capital locked up in the Future Fund, ready to be thrown onto the market at the first sign of a rise in the share price. And since Telstra has responsibly refused to guarantee dividends beyond the next six months, the shares offer nothing much in the way of either growth or income. Few existing shareholders will be tempted and with household debt now running at a record high new ones will be thin on the ground.

That leaves the big financial institutions, but these are simply places people park their money in the hope that it will be invested wisely and profitably. They owe a legal duty of care to their clients, who may well get uppity if they find themselves lumbered with a large slice of Telstra. The outlook is dire.

As well as good timing, successful politicians need good luck. In the last 10 years Howard has had plenty. He would say he was owed it after the decade before. But now, at last, the wheel may be turning again.


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