Liberal strategists are still banking on the 16-seat buffer protecting the Government from defeat.
In a last-ditch bid to win a fifth and final term, John Howard evoked the memory of Liberal Party founder, Sir Robert Menzies, in an effort to convince voters his party still has their interests at heart.
Enduring continuing bleak polls, and facing the growing view of pundits – and, worse still, of voters themselves – that Labor may well win the election on November 24, Mr Howard dug deep both financially and philosophically to draw on two policy issues which lie at the heart of the values of his party – educating children and owning one’s own home.
Menzies, of course, was the Australian prime minister who, under pressure from the Democratic Labor Party, broke the decades-long divisive debate over state aid to Catholic schools, and who championed widespread home ownership as being paramount to a stable, contented and prosperous society.
Mr Howard had a choice between spending across a range of issues to win votes, or choosing a few key areas to differentiate himself from Kevin Rudd.
“Me too” election
The 2007 election will be remembered as the “me too” election in which both parties, but Labor in particular, sought to imitate and emulate each other’s policies. Both parties have restricted themselves to fighting over incremental differences in a few narrow policy areas.
Not surprisingly, voters report that they are finding the election campaign dull and are failing to “engage” in the political debate.
The Liberal Party claimed that Mr Rudd had copied as many as three dozen of its policies. While this may be an exaggeration, certainly Mr Rudd has adopted the tactic of being as similar as he can to Mr Howard on non-controversial issues, virtually from the time he promised “not to be an echo” when elevated to the leadership of the Labor Party last December.
Mr Howard has found it hard to separate himself from Mr Rudd who has backed him on issues against which Labor, in normal circumstances, would protest – the takeover of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory being the clearest example.
But the Liberals have also been guilty of “me too” politics, for example, in falling in behind Labor on climate change. Mr Howard’s schools package is itself an echo of Mr Rudd’s promise, in the first week of the campaign, to give laptop computers to school children.
But Mr Howard’s package is much more far-reaching and, because it is not means-tested, will not be able to be matched by Labor.
At the time of filing this story, Labor had not had its policy launch, but was expected to lay a heavy emphasis on education.
Mr Howard’s school package is substantial – $6 billion over four years.
But it also offers families significant cash in their hands, in the form of tax rebates, to help defray the costs of education, including school fees, uniforms, excursions, outside sports events and music tuition, textbooks and computers.
It applies to children from pre-school right through to the end of high school.
Primary school children rebates would be worth $400 per child per year, while high school rebates are worth $800 per child per year.
It also applies to both government and independent schools, and, given the fact that educating children takes a substantial part of the take-home pay of most families, it is likely to hold widespread appeal.
The second Howard policy was an effort to ensure that the young and coming generation of Australians do not miss out on the great Australian dream of owning their own home.
To this end Mr Howard is offering tax incentives in the form of tax-free home savings accounts, into which children, their parents, their grandparents and their friends can gain a tax deduction of $1,000 a year if they deposit this into one of these specialised accounts.
Income and earnings on the accounts are tax-free, with the proviso that the accumulated savings can only be used for a home deposit.
Under the Coalition policy, savers over 18 can also have up to $10,000 a year deposited into their accounts by their parents or others; but they can only get a tax deduction from the money they themselves contribute.
The plan is designed to build savings over time, to allow parents to help their children “get a foot in the door” of owning their own home, and to encourage in young people a culture of saving and managing money.
Mr Howard knows this election will be his last, and he must wonder whether it would have been easier to go out while he was on top earlier in the year.
He has had very little luck politically this year, from the time his Murray-Darling Basin package began unravelling.
Now he faces the toughest election of his career against a Labor Party awash with cash and with a very determined and focussed ally in the ACTU.
Liberal strategists are still banking on the 16-seat buffer protecting the Government from defeat, but there is now no-one among political observers predicting a strong Coalition win.
Mr Howard is banking on what he calls the “good sense” of the Australian people not to instal wall-to-wall Labor governments across the nation or to risk the current prosperity with an inexperienced team.
But whether the Australian people still have the same belief in Mr Howard is another matter.