Howard's tail


At the moment, in politics, John Howard is God. He has won four elections. He has repelled all comers both within and without, including three Labor leaders in as many years. His party wants him in the job for however long he feels like it. And he’s on the verge of taking control of the Senate that will allow him to pass just about any legislation he likes.

So just what the hell is he doing hanging on to such an ordinary and inept bunch of junior ministers?

In a cricketing analogy they’re called the tail. They are the weak link. During a match, whether it’s a test or a one-day, you always hope that you’ve made enough runs in an innings so you’re not forced to send the poor performers out to bat. For some reason, even after all these years, Howard carries a pretty weak tail.

Max Gillies as John Howard in the Big Con.<br />
			Photograph by Lisa Tomasetti.

Max Gillies as John Howard in The Big Con
Photograph by Lisa Tomasetti

Remember Wilson Tuckey intervening on his son’s behalf about a dodgy traffic offence. Or, one of my personal favourites, Danna Vale who referred to the Royal Australian Navy as the ‘mightiest little Navy in the world.’ There’s a long list. In the early days Howard got rid of the liabilities, people like Warwick Parer, who failed to see the conflict of interest between his Ministry and some of his private holdings. Not forgetting Bronwyn Bishop after the appalling way she handled the nursing home acid baths scandal. Yet these days, he’s more inclined to hang on to them.

I’m certain that Howard had no intention of giving Kim Beazley such a good leg up in his first week back in the chair with the Tumbi Creek grants taking centre stage and the Cornelia Rau issue dogging his footsteps. Even though the PM was unhappy about the Habib revelations he was somewhat prepared for them. But neither he nor Hill were expecting the interview Rod Barton gave to Four Corners just in time for Senate Estimates last week. And all of this was topped off by the salacious ‘spy who loved me’ Amir Laty allegations swirling around Phillip Ruddock. There was definitely something in the water last week.

Some of my earnest colleagues believe all of this suggests that there are some ‘cracks’ appearing in the seamless Government façade. Some of these shadowy issues, shrouded in secrecy and national security make it difficult to know where the truth lies. The Government wants to keep it that way as I suspect the electorate may find the facts pretty unpalatable.

There are also suggestions that some of the biggest problems Howard will have to deal with in the near future will rise from his own backbench. This may be partly true but the so-called ‘Gingers’ and some other backbenchers are more akin to kids running amok in the playground. The PM lets them bleat away, and every so often one or two of their suggestions will be taken on board but, make no mistake, John Howard is in charge and he makes the big decisions.

Really the only serious shadow on his horizon has been the performances of his junior and some senior ministers over the past two weeks. It’s ironic that while on the whole the PM appears to be unassailable some of the events over the past two weeks make the Government appear fairly tawdry.

Jim Lloyd is a dill and that’s being kind. He was only given a leg up to a ministerial position because it was thought his seat on the NSW central coast might be in trouble. He used to be the whip; a position that suited, shall we say, his stellar organisational skills. But he is a man desperate to be taken seriously. Last year when he rose to answer his first question in the House he was greeted with jeers and taunts. The ALP’s Lindsay Tanner called out to Chistopher Pyne, a Parliamentary Secretary, a moderate and an ambitious man not overly liked by Howard, ‘This is what you’ve been over looked for mate!’ Lloyd read his prepared answer and took the long walk back to his seat swearing and cursing the Labor frontbench all the way.

Lloyd is not alone. I’ve long had my doubts about the Assistant Treasurer Mal Brough. He got off to a pretty ordinary start and I suspect it was only his comprehensive and very loud blustering that got him through the attacks of Labor’s Anthony Albanese over the inadequacies of Job Network. He disgraced himself in the middle of last year by attacking Albanese’s staffer in the House while attempting to side-step a question “ it was unfair and unnecessary.

Brough has been given a slight promotion to Assistant Treasurer, but already he has had to accept several of Labor’s amendments to a number of tax bills making their way through the system. When Coonan previously held the position, she shuffled through the paper work in an orderly manner without too much grandstanding. Brough needs to learn when to stay quiet and shelve his foolish blustering in the House. In his previous job acting as Robert Hill’s deputy in Defence he failed to endear himself to the Forces when he came up with a plan to have one of the Black Hawk’s winch him down to make an announcement at Brisbane’s Southbank. Defence said no. Much to his chagrin. Or at least so the story goes.

Speaking of which, what wonderful ‘do-whup’ girls Robert Hill now has at his disposal. Veteran’s Affairs Minister, Deanne Kelly and Parliamentary Secretary, Teresa Gambaro. Deanne survived only by the skin of her teeth last year and I suspect that Howard kept her on to keep his admirable frontbench quota of women up to the mark. Gambaro has had a fairly insignificant career to date but in her short spell in this position she’s put out more press releases than her Minister.

The list goes on. Fran Bailey sits on a very small margin and had been a Parliamentary Secretary so long it seemed like it was her turn. She was least offensive to Howard of the choices he had. Peter McGauran, a twenty plus year veteran is a senior member of the National Party but he has never been anything other than a junior Minister, he has one of the lowliest portfolios in Government – Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs. Bit of an oxymoron really when the PM says ad nauseaum he doesn’t believe in multiculturalism. Pat Farmer, once called ‘illiterate’ by Mark Latham, was given a Parliamentary Secretary position as a reward for retaining his seat of Macarthur and Howard needed some semblance of youth on his front bench somewhere.

Why doesn’t Howard just get rid of them? Sitting in the wilderness of the backbench are a number of extremely capable and intelligent politicians and policy makers. Yet many of them will never see the frontbench while Howard remains PM. They are considered to be too progressive for this Prime Minister.

Sharman Stone, currently a Parliamentary Secretary, quite frankly was robbed by the PM. She is a smart, savvy woman who should have been appointed to the vacancy left by David Kemp with her wealth of experience in environment issues but instead it went to Ian Campbell who had none.

Marise Payne has annoyed her Prime Minister so many times on issues from ABC funding to the ASIO bill that she will never be a Minister under Howard. She hangs on hopeful of a reprieve under Peter Costello. Tony Smith, a former Costello staffer, has been busy lifting his profile in the past year but is unlikely to get a step up because of his closeness to the Treasurer. I’ve often wondered if Petro Georgiou joined the Libs by mistake and discovered it once he made it into Parliament but found he couldn’t go back. His views on asylum seekers are well known and are in direct conflict with Howard. I wonder how long he plans to plug away from the sidelines valiantly trying to persuade his party to relax their stance.

Some new blood entered the House this year, men and women who weren’t merely party hacks or former staffers. It’s hard to imagine that Malcolm Turnbull will be made to sit next to Wilson Tuckey on the backbench for too long. For one thing it’s just plain cruel and for another he’s just too talented. But again, his truest liberal tendencies may disadvantage him in the promotion stakes. Andrew Robb will no doubt find himself stepping up also but probably not until the next Parliament. The most promising recruit is Andrew Laming, the new member for Bowman. Laming was an eye surgeon in his previous life and had a very short stint as an adviser for Kay Patterson when she was Health Minister. He has a wonderful turn of phrase and is quick on his feet. But most encouragingly Laming has a fine policy mind developed by stints in remote places such as Afghanistan and, having run clinics in western Queensland, he has a passion for solving the problems in Aboriginal health. Laming is the new breed and has already decided he wants to be Health Minister. Louise Markus, the much-feted new member for Greenway, is currently the apple of the Prime Minister’s eye. She’s signed up for a huge number of committees, and has found herself Secretary of the Immigration committee. Markus does not intend staying on the backbench for long.

Any one of these people would be better than some of those now occupying the Government front benches.

Most disappointing of all, no doubt, to the Prime Minister is his own Deputy, John Anderson. Anderson’s appalling performance in the House recently has set many tongues wagging. Pork-barrelling is done by every political party everywhere. It’s almost a perk of office. Just never make it too obvious. For Ando and co. the breadth of their pre-election pay-offs is fast becoming unacceptable. Howard must almost be wishing that Anderson had decided to call it quits and let Mark Vaile take over. Monday’s revelations in the House about his approval of the twice rejected ethanol plant coupled with the Windsor bribery allegations that just won’t go away make Anderson a pretty shoddy wing-man.

So, Prime Minister, before you dismantle the industrial relations system, abolish the cross media ownership laws and restructure the tax system how about you go through the ranks, weed out the weak links and put some real talent on your frontbench. Then perhaps you’ll look like a real Government instead of a one man show.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.