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The 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 BRENT.

Monday June 9 2003

John 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.

We 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.

These 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 electoral prowess.

We 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.

Now, 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.

The 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.

That’s 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.

So it can’t be said that Howard is can’t be beaten. We’ll now see why he will be.

First, 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.

A problem 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.

Then 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 in history (48.9 percent).

Term two was so dreadful that merely achieving what every other non-Labor government had since 1914 – a third term –  was hailed as a heroic feat.

These 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.

And 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.

Looking 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.

Gravity 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.

Even the most dewy eyed Howard-lover would concede that Labor will be back in office one day, the only question being when.

Nothing is certain in life or politics, and Jemaah Islamiah, the US State Department or a well-timed Labor crisis could save Howard yet.

But barring that miracle, Howard’s end will come at the next election.

Peter Brent is editor of mumble.com.au

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