Ya gotta laugh, it’s such a funny business: Elections 2001

Bad novelists write of hearty guffaws, a phenomenon rarely encountered in everyday life. But they seem to have their uses on the campaign trail, at least for Treasurer Peter Costello, who finds them a useful filler for awkward conversational spaces.

There is the terminating guffaw, a big laugh that is code for “I must move on to shake the next line of hands, but haven’t we both enjoyed this little chat?” There is the whoops guffaw, to smooth over any minor lapse in savvy. And there is the “Look – a joke!” guffaw, released at the merest glimpse of humor in an unpromising round of small talk.

The Treasurer was shaking hands yesterday in Rowville in the marginal seat of Aston, held by Liberal Chris Pearce.

Aston “has more home buyers than any other electorate in Australia”, Mr Costello told a gathering in the community centre. It appeared to be a hand-picked crowd of Liberal supporters, mostly small-business people and self-funded retirees.

There was the local hairdresser (“What do you think you could do for me?” asked Mr Costello); the IT consultant with the Marvin the Martian cartoon character tie (“the Bugs Bunny Show had Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse, didn’t it?” asked the Treasurer, scrambling for common ground); and the patisserie owner who used to be a policeman (“It’s a hard life,” Mr Costello sympathised, “a lot of late shifts and overtime.”)

Several exchanges were either serendipitous or dorothy dixers: a toy shop owner praised the GST and said small business now understood it and did not want it changed. Mr Costello had no trouble concurring.

If there was a lapse in the etiquette of positive-speak – a building supplier who said he had “survived three Labor governments” raised the unfortunate topic of the collapse of insurer HIH – Mr Costello deftly sidestepped the potential morass by introducing another topic: “What do you reckon the average price of a new home would be?”

Rita Otterwell and Kate McLaren wanted to know whether the government would introduce national service or conscription for the war against terrorism. “No,” he said firmly. “We’re using the SAS. We don’t need masses of people for a land war. There’s no chance of that at all.”

Would the government raise the GST, they asked? “No. Never,” he promised. “To change it in Australia we have got to have the agreement of all the states, and five of them are Labor states. One of the risks would be, if a federal Labor government got elected, they might win the agreement of the Labor states.”

Once the cameras had their shots of him cuddling the obligatory baby (seven-week-old Zoe Walsh, who slept soundly through her brush with fame), Mr Costello moved smoothly into a speech. Without notes, and without the mine host bonhomie of the reception line, he talked straight to the cameras with the skill and assurance of a seasoned television performer.

He was equally in charge at the next stop, a tour of a truck parts factory, where he responded to media inquiries about the latest job figures with a measured but determined focus on the good news and a disinclination to discuss the bad news.

And how does he feel about the latest Labor advertising campaign, which features a smirking Treasurer and suggests he would end up prime minister if the coalition won the next election?

“I went right through the ad, and there was no punchline,” he said, chuckling. Funny he missed it; he is the ad’s punchline.

First published in The Age.