end is inevitable, even for Howard
The Liberals will almost certainly lose the next election despite
the all-conquering status of their leader, writes PETER
Monday June 9
Howard, political colossus, all-conquering Liberal hero, will almost
certainly lose the next election. No, I haven't stopped taking my
pills. It is written, and here’s why.
must start with the fact that while politics-watchers - those who
offer weekly scores to one side or other - influence perceptions of
who’s “winning”, they don’t decide elections.
days a Prime Ministerial loosening of the tie elicits squeals of
delight at a man "at the height of his game", but looking
comfortable after seven years in a job is not to be confused with
should go to basics and look at opinion polls. Not the preferred
Prime Minister or approval ratings fluff, but voting intentions –
votes are what decide elections.
there is a consensus today about what they say - “Howard reigns
supreme” - but it bears little relation to the polls
themselves. They show the government usually, yes, ahead, but by
modest margins that depend on the last exploded bomb. In the six
months before Bali the opposition led about half the time.
contest is close, a situation more remarkable because of problems with
the federal opposition. By way of comparison, state premiers
Beattie, Bracks and Carr usually enjoy opinion poll margins of 16 to
20 points two party preferred. At the federal level, the thirty six
Newspolls taken since the last election average out to a two percent
lead to the government.
51 to 49, the same as last week's result in The Australian, and
a vote like that at an election can give victory to either side.
Against an under-performing opposition and in an insecure world
environment, a political giant should really be doing better.
can’t be said that Howard is can’t be beaten. We’ll now see
why he will be.
the opposition’s rhetorical performance can only improve. It has
discarded the small target strategy and leadership conflicts look to
be resolved, if not next week then in the near future.
for Howard is the very expectation of an easy win, with loopier
commentators even imagining a decade of Coalition
rule. Such expectations play into results; expected easy victories
did Jeff Kennett and Wayne Goss in, and the niggling feeling that
Paul Keating might slip away again increased Howard's 1996 margin.
there is the government’s electoral record. After taking power
with a huge margin in 1996, Howard lagged badly after eighteen
months and at the 1998 election set two dubious records: as the
first government since 1931 to lose the popular vote after one term;
and recording the lowest winning vote
two was so dreadful that merely achieving what every other non-Labor
government had since 1914 – a third term – was hailed as a
are not pointless trips down memory lane; they go to the
electorate’s underlying connection with the government. And they
help explain why, in favourable circumstances, Howard’s electoral
stocks are currently modest.
finally: electoral gravity. Participants don’t believe in the
electoral cycle because it casts them as bit players, but in modern
professional two party politics, gravity gets you in the end.
overseas, one or two elections down the track conservatives will
almost certainly rule in Britain and New Zealand against Labour
oppositions that are adrift, unsure of what they stand for.
got Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating. Good politicians can postpone
the cycle, but they can’t beat it, and the Howard government,
which spent its first two terms looking like a fourth term one, has
spent its postponement quota.
the most dewy eyed Howard-lover would concede that Labor will be
back in office one day, the only question being when.
is certain in life or politics, and Jemaah Islamiah, the US State
Department or a well-timed Labor crisis could save Howard yet.
barring that miracle, Howard’s end will come at the next election.
Peter Brent is editor
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