It's a referendum, but on what?

It was a brilliant piece of politicking by Latham yesterday as he launched the party's policy on public hospitals. It was Latham at his strongest, targetting a human services issue, keeping the message simple and effective, and looking every inch the caring leader. The policy itself is strong, and a stark contrast to the approach of the Liberals, which is essentially to pay the private sector to do the same thing.

The best part of Latham's message on Wednesday was his assertion that this election would be a referendum on Medicare. Brilliant. Clever. Effective. The statement (surely a deliberate remark rather than one of Latham's throwaways) works well for two reasons. Firstly, it gives the campaign a central theme which has thus been lacking; 1993 and 1998 were on the GST, 1996 was on Keating's vision, 2001 was on Tampa, but what was 2004 going to be? Latham has just had a good stab at framing the election, something that neither leader had been able to effectively do thus far. Secondly, it puts Howard on the backfoot. The footage of Howard during this doorstop was particuarly cringe-worthy:

HACK: Do you believe health and Medicare are quite as high on the priority list as Mark Latham's indicated, he seems to have said today that October 9 as much is going to be a referendum on those issues? (BTW, who said the standard of grammar amongst journalists was dropping? -A.)

HOWARD: October 9 will be a referendum on who can better manage the Australian economy and keep this country strong at a time of international terrorism. They are the two dominant issues of the election.

HACK: But Medicare's got to rate pretty high up doesn't it?

HOWARD: (pauses and looks like his hearing aid might be playing up) They are the two dominant issues of the election campaign.


Can Latham sustain health and education as the core issues right up until election day? If he can, then he must be a good chance of victory given that his message is so much better received than his opponent. But if Howard's reading proves correct and it's interest rates and terrorism, then things will shift back. Surely this makes the media a powerful player in the next fortnight - it is they who will collectively decide which narrative proves to be correct by making it correct. Perhaps as the old economics textbooks explains, it's either gonna be guns or butter.

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