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Date: 06 Mar 1993
Words: 1662
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Page: 27


HAVE you noticed how the experts are suddenly hedging their bets? Labor was all but written off as a hopeless cause 10 days ago. Now, with a week to go, we're being told the election is/could be/might be anybody's guess.

With the GST penny at last clanging into voters' consciousness, and John Hewson looking less serene than he was, there are those now scrambling for escape clauses just in case the world turns out to be flat after all.

Hewson's uneven behaviour lately suggests the Liberal Party is no less infected with doubt. On Tuesday, after a grimly unconvincing performance trying to explain his GST to John Laws's listeners, the minders who skilfully program Hewson each day felt their man had been "set up".

One of Hewson's staff people had strong words with Laws's producer, John Bailey, in the studio. He wanted to know why there were no questions about unemployment? Why were all the questions about the GST?

Bailey explained, as Laws had done to Hewson, that queries about the GST had dominated phone calls and faxes from listeners. Details of the GST were what people wanted to know, irrespective of what they thought about unemployment. The staffer went on whingeing.

And when Laws told Hewson, on air, he'd like to have Hewson back on his program before polling day, Hewson responded: "Could I do it next time on unemployment which, I think, is the main issue of this election?"

Laws: "But obviously it isn't the main issue | I'll give you all these faxes, and they're the faxes that have come in, and they're the calls that have come in. And we've not been selective; we've tried to cover the country.

Hewson: "But the big issue is that unemployment will get worse under the Government |"

Laws: "Sure, well, the big issue is unemployment. But in the minds of the people - and you see, you talk about wanting to listen to real Australians. Well, the real Australians are giving you the message. And you're not listening to it."

Hewson: "No, we are."

Laws: "The real issue is the GST, according to them."

Hewson: "I think the real issue is unemployment."

It wasn't Hewson's finest hour. He seemed not only petulant that Laws should persist with the GST instead of unemployment but remarkably vague about the specifics of how the GST would work. Things got no better the following night when he appeared with Mike Willesee on A Current Affair.

This time Hewson went round and round in ever more confusing circles about the price of a birthday cake under a Hewson Government, depending on whether it was "just a cake from a cake shop" or whether "it's decorated and has candles". That birthday cake made almost as much bad news for Hewson in the papers the next day as did the Laws interview 24 hours earlier.

A birthday cake, would you believe |

As Willesee remarked to Hewson: "OK, it's just an example. But if the answer to a birthday cake is so complex, you do have a problem with the overall GST, don't you?" The short answer is yes, a huge problem. John Hewson's dilemma is there are no short answers to the GST.

Not good news ones, anyway.

It's like the John Button pie story.

In Adelaide early this week, where Button was doing a day's leisurely campaigning unobserved by the media zoo, he told a wonderfully expressive story about running into Mick Young at Keating's formal campaign launch the previous week. Young has been out of politics now for five years, and his mates say he's regretted every day of it.

Anyhow, when Button saw him at the campaign launch, "he was sitting at this table of people, about eight or 10 of them, and I went over and I said, 'How you going, Mick?' He said, 'Terrific, and by the way, have you had a look at this GST? It's a (expletive) of a thing.'

"All the other people at the table sort of dropped their spoons - they weren't people he knew - but Mick says, 'It's a real (expletive). Nobody understands it. I was talking to a Liberal about it the other day and he tells me there'll be no tax on a cold pie but there'll be a tax on a hot pie. And you know what? I checked it out, and he's right. What a (expletive, expletive)of an idea that is |'

"And he is right. You see, a cold pie is food, but a hot pie is a takeaway. Heating the pie is value added, and so would attract 15 per cent GST. I'm told all the pie-makers are worried people will start buying their pies from the supermarkets and heating them themselves."

If Paul Keating ever listens to anyone, which isn't often if it's contrary to his own thinking, he badly needed someone like Mick Young from the outset. Somebody with some simple ideas of how to dramatise the complexities and shortcomings of the GST in a way Keating hasn't been able to do from day one of the campaign. Like the cold pie/hot pie absurdity.

Even when Mike Willesee and John Hewson between them handed him their birthday cake ready-made for easy exploitation, all Keating did was fall in it. He rushed off to a baker's shop next day to find a cake for the night's TV news bulletins but instead found a baker who hates Labor. The resultant press coverage made Keating look a thorough goose.

This has been the real story of the election campaign. Keating's campaign has been hit and miss - mostly miss. There's been a lack of planning and professionalism completely alien to Labor's winning campaigns of the last 10 years. Keating has been doing it his way.

And his way has looked real seat-of-the-pants stuff that has stuttered along, fuelled mainly by a seemingly bottomless bag of money for various interest groups and an undisciplined personal performance that has rarely looked better than lack-lustre and often downright gauche.

Only when Keating bored into Hewson and his GST two weeks ago, on the Willesee program, did the Labor campaign come alive. Paradoxically Hewson -and not Keating - has kept it burning brightly as a front-page issue ever since. It's been Hewson's mistakes that have been responsible, not Labor's campaign adroitness.

They haven't been major blues, but damaging enough in a climate where Hewson has only himself to blame for ever surrendering the campaign initiative at any stage.

Why? Probably because of his paranoia about the press, which Hewson always thinks is working against him if it doesn't reflect exactly his view of the world, whatever the issue - hence the laughable suggestion that somebody like John Laws, of all people, would set him up on the GST - but certainly because of his evasiveness towards scrutiny.

Hewson doesn't like scrutiny.

It's why he almost never submits himself to a press conference. It's why he wanted tomorrow night's final debate to be conducted by 400 "ordinary Australians" rather than a panel of political journalists or a skilled interviewer like the ABC's Kerry O'Brien.

It's why he and his handlers go ape when pinned in public, as in the Laws program, on the detail of the GST. It's why almost all of his shadow ministry have gone missing since the campaign started.

Scrutiny means political risk. Scrutiny means being forced from the general into the specific. Scrutiny means detail. Scrutiny means, inevitably, mistakes. Thus the whole of Hewson's campaign, from the manipulative muck of his formal launch to the programmed generalities of his day-to-day rhetoric, has been all about distancing him and his policies from scrutiny.

It is easier and safer to simply dismiss Labor's increasingly frantic denunciation of the GST as a "scare campaign", just as it is easier and safer to insinuate that any but true believers are either politically tainted or otherwise personally motivated.

The Big Lie in this campaign has come not from Labor but from the Coalition, and it is the all-embracing blanket smear intended to smother any and all doubt and criticism of Fightback and its ability to deliver what John Hewson says it will deliver. Hallelujah and praise the Lord |

The new dawn is near upon us.

This week, to counter preoccupation with the GST and to give the media a new circus, with lots of movement and happenings, we now have public rallies, almost as if we'd never heard of such things before.

This is the Clinton factor working again, like Hewson's early morning jogging and silly pictures of him "playing" a saxaphone he has no idea how to play. Clinton's campaign bus tours to meet "real people" caught the imagination of America. With the tours came lots of positive publicity.

Now Hewson seeks the same sort of publicity in the final week. If a bit of aggro comes with his rallies, well, so much the better. John will mix it with"real people", telling it "like it is". His captive media train will get something "real" to report as distinct from talking heads and the GST.

And it's working a treat. Keating's campaign is again relegated to the background. The press is having an orgasm. Liberal Party headquarters is back in control. Their man is on a roll again, the GST notwithstanding.

And, despite the polls, I have no doubt Hewson has only to keep his head to win comfortably. Whatever ground it makes up elsewhere, Labor is going to lose the election in Queensland, South Australia and over in Perth. Ten years and a million unemployed are insurmountable.

I don't believe it will be close at all.


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