Prime Minister who runs ahead of the pack.
Will he go or won't he? With an eye on history, more than likely,
January 7 2003
“Don’t go John Howard” show rolled back into town last week. The Australian
Coalition backbenchers who were already on the record as firmly
stating that the PM should not retire before the next
election, and invited them to restate.
They obliged. Said
Victorian Fran Bailey, “my constituents are very, very pleased
that the person at the helm of the country is the person to lead
Australia in difficult times ahead.” Paul Neville, Qld, doubts
that any PM has ever been “so in harmony with the Australian
electorate”. De-Anne Kelly, Barry Wakelin, Peter Lindsay and Gary
Nairn all concurred.
Treasury boss and Joh for PM team-member John Stone summed up the
case the next day in a pungent opinion piece in the same paper.
Stone scoffed at the idea of Peter Costello as Prime Minister and
pooh-poohed his treasurership. Heaping praise on the PM while
excoriating the government’s economic performance takes a fine
balance which was perhaps absent, for the next day The Australian carried a letter to the editor from Howard defending his
Treasurer’s record. Saturday’s editorial also addressed the
So if by chance
anyone had forgotten that the PM’s 64th birthday is in
July this year, and that several years ago he’d promised to
consider his future at that time, they can consider themselves
Most of the quoted
backbenchers hold marginal electorates, so we can assume their
entreaties were sincere. But a rational analysis suggests they’ll
be disappointed. A Howard retirement looks very likely.
John Howard is, as often, ahead of the pack.
praise for Howard last year was extraordinary. We got, from senior
newspaper journalists, our leader as “ working class hero”, “conviction
politician” (again) and “reigning supreme [and] shaping
Australia as he wants to shape it”.
that was just in the final week.
might ask why would a Prime Minister leave politics at a time of
such adoration. But the question should be: why wouldn’t he?
Prime Minister has had one eye on the history books. If Paul Keating
had retired during his last term, and left, say, Kim Beazley to
carry the defeat, history would view his Prime Ministership, and the
electorate’s judgment of it, very differently.
an undefeated John Howard. The PM didn’t get where he is by
succumbing to flattery or accepting the accepted wisdom. He’s
familiar with the electoral cycle, and knows - because he was there
- how close and difficult the last two elections really were.
Despite the hype, a truly all-conquering politician would have made
their re-elections look easy - see Steve Bracks in Victoria and Jim
Bacon in Tasmania last year. Howard must know what a tall order
another win would be.
do the opinion polls paint an unassailable picture, with last year
being a reasonably even contest in voting intentions. Not that
you’d know it from the reporting; much of the confusion comes from
commentators ignoring preferences at a time of an unprecedented high
Green vote that will predominately flow to Labor.
is another, rather woolly but much quoted measure called
“preferred Prime Minister”, and it is here that John Howard
continues to eclipse Simon Crean. But “preferred leader”, while
probably saying much about Australians’ attitudes to authority,
bears little relationship to electability. Trailing as preferred PM
didn’t prevent Howard beating Paul Keating by 40 seats in 1996,
for instance. Kim Beazley regularly out-performed John Howard as
preferred Prime Minister. Most current Premiers - Bracks and Bob
Carr are two examples – prevailed from opposition despite dismal
preferred Premier numbers.
of course, there’s political history. On July 26, his birthday,
John Howard will have been in the job one week shy of seven years
and five months, overtaking Malcolm Fraser’s tenure by days.
Beating Bob Hawke into second place behind Robert Menzies would mean
another election, which fails a risk-benefit analysis.
this year there’ll be a window of opportunity. The Prime Minister
can cash his chips for maximum historical return. If he does he’ll
join Robert Menzies as a Liberal god; if not, there’s a good
chance of the electorate being seen to repudiate his version of the
would require a combination of clear analysis, ego, discipline and
cunning - which means it would trouble him not at all.
I’ve never met the man, but like many Australians it feels like I
have. Retiring in late in 2003 or early 2004 and getting the very
last laugh. Now that’s the John Howard I know.
Peter Brent is editor
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