It was just over a week into his overseas trip. There was John Howard being feted by the leader of the Free World with a gala State dinner in Washington DC; and then hailed by the new Conservative Prime Minister of Canada as a role model.
But all anyone seemed to want to talk about was leadership of the Liberal Party and Peter Costello. Back home the headlines were focused on the latest Kovco bungle and the polls were showing Labor had a solid lead over the Government suggesting that perhaps Howard’s Industrial Relations changes were starting to spook voters, or that the Budget handouts hadn’t actually distracted Middle Australia from rising petrol prices and interest rates.
In Washington the travelling press-gallery pack seemed more interested in speculating about what had begun looking like a final victory lap. And after yet another round of speculation, that even saw Rupert Murdoch weighing in with retirement advice, we were told by Howard that we (suddenly, desperately) needed to have a debate about uranium and nuclear power.
Howard is a remarkable political operator. His knowledge of the news cycle is acute and his ability to direct political debate in this country is almost unparalleled. All it took was a Prime Ministerial pronouncement and the headlines turned nuclear. But what was this debate designed to do?
Sure, discussion about fossil fuel alternatives is a good thing. No one would argue about that. And yes, there has been a shift in public opinion about nuclear power. Even some environmentalists now concede that it may have to be part of our energy mix in the future. But is this really the central political debate of our time?
Of course not.
This was an attempt to start a new political debate. And it was aimed at his own Party and Costello as much as the Opposition. With the introduction of his IR changes behind him and after 10 years of driving the economic and political agenda, this Prime Minister seems to be casting about for another crusade.
With nukes, he obviously wants us to think he’s found a campaign that provides a new platform, and stirs things up politically as well. Howard knows that the nuclear issue is a difficult one for the Labor Party, but it seems that he may have even performed that rare political manoeuvre, ‘the reverse wedge’ where you attempt to wedge the Opposition and end up wedging yourself instead.
The voters may be ready to accept the idea of nuclear power but not too many of them want a power station or a waste dump in their own neighbourhood. You’d have to suspect that if that sentiment starts to be reflected in votes, the wheels will fall off this particular debate pretty quickly.
But let’s get back to the message this is sending to Howard’s own side. While most backbenchers have been relaxed and comfortable about his leadership, some are starting to worry just a little that Howard’s political agenda may be becoming if not exhausted then certainly fatigued.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.
With Howard overseas, the domestic spotlight has been on the Treasurer. And while there is still no real mood for rapid change, many of those same Liberals who were previously lukewarm about the idea of Costello running the show are now starting to accept that change is in the air.
This is quite a different mindset to the one that dominated last year, and it appears to be partly due to Costello’s own change of tack. His decision not to create political mayhem with a challenge has won the respect of many, and his handling of the post-Budget period and his short three-day stint as Leader have also caused many to consider, more carefully, what it might be like to be part of a Costello Government.
When the Daily Telegraph‘s Piers Akerman floats the possibility of ‘an elegant departure’ for John Howard and then two days later blames the ABC for inflating the leadership story, even loyal backbenchers start to notice. Peter Lindsay, the Member for Herbert, and one of the most loyal of all was even moved to tell ABC Radio that he thought John Howard had done a great job for the country but:
often when there’s a change, the person who comes in, in fact, does an equally good job or even a better job. And I’m certainly confident Peter Costello could do just as good a job as John Howard has done.
The point is, there’s a recognition that change does need to come at some stage. And while Costello has accepted that the timing of that change is now well and truly out of his hands, his supporters haven’t quite given up the fight altogether. They are, however, being a bit more subtle about it.
Howard’s overseas trip was instructive, they say. And much can be learnt from international experience. One of those close to the Treasurer helpfully drew my attention to an article in The Guardian by the former UK Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd in which he muses on Tony Blair’s difficulty trying to organise a ‘graceful exit:’
It is strange how often distinguished leaders get this wrong. Winston Churchill stayed too long for his own reputation; so did Margaret Thatcher; so does Tony Blair. Such leaders are surrounded by courtiers who tell them that they are indispensable: ‘Prime Minister, if I may say so, that last speech of yours was one of your very best …’ But the appetite for power outlasts the ability to wield it effectively or with dignity. There are dire examples in Europe today. Gerhard SchrÃ¶der and Silvio Berlusconi had to be dragged almost physically from office. Jacques Chirac remains a basically empty figure while others sort out the poisonous rivalries of succession.
The clear implication is that for these leaders it becomes impossible to leave because they want to recapture the past. What is the alternative to elegant departure? It’s an inelegant one. And the result of that is a legacy that is forever tarnished.
The question is: will John Howard be any different?
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