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Pollster believes the Prime Minister, John Howard, has lost control of the agenda

PETER THOMPSON: As the Prime Minister himself said at his National Press Club appearance, this week, the downturn in the polls for his government shows its first year in office was better than its second, 'but', he added, 'that happens with governments.' The question is: what will it take to restore his standing in the polls? Will tax reform do it for him; will Wik; will the economy?

Rod Cameron spent more than 20 years testing the pulse of the electorate. Until 1990, his company, ANOP, was the official pollster for the Labor Party. Nowadays, it does political polling for corporate clients, and Rod Cameron joins us now to talk to Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Rod Cameron, you've been watching and conducting polls for many, many years. What do you make of the Government's current poor form in the polls and the suddenness of that turnaround which started with Cheryl Kernot's defection to the Labor Party seven weeks ago?

ROD CAMERON: Well, it's the biggest turnaround in my years of observing politics, Fran. There's been a major recovery in the ALP primary vote, but I do think the real situation, at the moment, is one more akin to the parties running pretty closely together. Isuspect that next year's early polls will produce such a result, and I think the weekend poll showing Labor 15 points ahead or so is-I think they're best ignored.

But this is a major turnaround. It's not just a mid-term slump. Imean, three months ago the Government was way ahead and I think on track to win the next election with a pretty modest loss of seats. Now, the next election will certainly be a contest. I think the Government's still favoured in such a contest but, in a contest, campaign dynamics can take over and predictions, at this stage, are best heavily qualified, I think.

FRAN KELLY: Why do you say it's not just a mid-term slump? I mean, John Howard made the point the other day that Bill Clinton went through a slump in the polls; Margaret Thatcher went through it; plenty of Australian Prime Ministers have gone through it. Why do you see this as something different?

ROD CAMERON: Well, I think the Government's lost control of the agenda, and the Prime Minister's personal stocks have fallen quite a long way. I mean, I think the key to the turnaround in the Labor vote was, indeed, Cheryl Kernot's transference, and that was a major event in Australian politics. It's not so much her own vote-winning appeal that's the important point here although that's considerable. I think the most important point is that her joining Labor has-well, it's forced Kim Beazley and the ALP to make up its mind what it stands for these days, and in fact to say it with confidence rather than sotto voce for fear of upsetting the economic commentators. And I think that's forced Labor to say that it stands for a bit more government intervention and a bit less economic rationality, and that's very much in tune with the community mood.

FRAN KELLY: And yet, Labor's not actually cheering about these polls too much. They don't trust them entirely. Is it fair to say that that's partly because polls like this don't necessarily reflect what's happening in regional and rural Australia, and that's where the Government's still definitely got the jump on Labor?

ROD CAMERON: Yes. About a third of the seats that Labor needs to win are in regional Australia, and also, I think they know that you don't have jumps of such mammoth proportion like that, or if you do, then they're a bit illusory. But that is not to say there has not been some fairly major phenomenon happen, and I think the net result really is a pretty close situation.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. Well, let's talk about what might happen next year. Traditionally, Christmas provides a boost in the poll for the Government. You say we're likely to see the parties neck and neck. What about tax reform and the effect of that? What about a GST? Do you still regard that the electorate is actually quite friendly now to the notion of a GST?

ROD CAMERON: In part, it's a very high-risk issue, tax, and it really does show how the game has changed that in fact the Government is taking it on. The community has softened to a GST and, I think, despite the Government's attempts to broaden tax as an issue it will be still the GST that will be the hurdle. But I think this community softening is for a very modest GST. I heard you mentioning earlier, 10 per cent is just about the maximum I think, which is sellable-maybe one or two points higher, but that's the maximum tolerance.

The problem, I think, for the Government is that the Prime Minister seems intent on raising community expectations to a level which would be very difficult to achieve with such a modest GST-you know, the talks of mega-tax reform. I think that needs mega-GSTs, and that's not a position I'd like to defend, no matter how big the tax cuts involved are.

FRAN KELLY: Is it possible that the Prime Minister hyping it like this could have the effect that people actually now find themselves in the position of wanting a GST?

ROD CAMERON: Well, the hyping it means that they expect big tax cuts, and I suspect big tax cuts are hard to get without big GSTs.

FRAN KELLY: And do people want a GST, though, nowadays?

ROD CAMERON: No, they don't want a GST, but I think they've softened to the prospect of a modest one. Anything that isn't modest is going to be very difficult to sustain. And, remember, the last election was all about the G part of the GST. We haven't yet seen much campaigning on the S part, the services part of a GST, and that's going to be an unpleasant revelation to a lot of middle Australia, I think.

FRAN KELLY: Just finally, you advised the Labor Government for many years on tactics based on your readings of the electorate. If you were still in the business of advising Prime Ministers, what would you be telling John Howard now?

ROD CAMERON: To get control of the agenda back, and I think the Wik debate is a perfect example of this. Here was an issue running 80per cent in the Government's favour because it was basically about anti-black prejudice which is more easily evoked now than in any of my time in observing politics. But such is the lack of control of the agenda by the Government, that we've seen this issue turn into something, one of morality and leadership rather than prejudice, and while the Government, I think, still wins it in the bush, it's close to losing it in the cities. So I think that's John Howard's number one priority-win the agenda back-and that means not offending the interest groups as willy-nilly as he seems to have done.

FRAN KELLY: Rod Cameron, thank you very much.

ROD CAMERON: Thank you.

PETER THOMPSON: And Rod Cameron is head of the company, ANOP, the polling company.