John Thrashes Peter


Despite the winter recess in Canberra, it was quite a week in Topsy Turvy Town.

The first set of opinion polls are in, and surprise, surprise, the Prime Minister John Howard won the fixture, hands down. Treasurer Peter Costello, if he ever held the whip hand in this latest altercation in the sandbox we like to think of as the Federal Parliament, has been trounced.

When it comes to the ‘deal’ done (or not done) in 1994 about when Howard would hand over to Costello, the numbers in Fairfax’s ACNielsen Poll, published on Monday, revealed that more people (46 per cent) believed Costello’s version of events 12 years ago than Howard’s (35 per cent). And yet, 63 per cent of Australians would prefer to see Howard remain the PM, as compared to the 25 per cent who want Costello in The Lodge.

Although it didn’t ask the question about credibility, the next day’s The Australian‘s Newspoll figures about preferred PM were fairly similar: 66 per cent of us apparently want Howard to remain PM, and only 20 per cent of us want Costello.

What’s even worse for Costello is that Opposition Leader Kim Beazley did better than he did. As The Australian‘s Dennis Shanahan put it:

Costello’s remarks turned the past week into a referendum on Australia’s leadership, a choice between John Howard, Peter Costello and Kim Beazley. Howard won hands down against both, and Costello came third.

So, apparently, we know he’s a two-faced liar who’ll say anything to get what he wants, but we still want Howard to lead us for a few more years. At the same time, we reckon Costello’s more truthful than Howard, but more of a loser than Beazley. But then, we’d still like Costello to continue as Treasurer (ACNielsen giving him an extraordinary 70 per cent approval rating in that job).

We’re a weird mob.

On a less personal front, both opinion polls showed a two-Party preferred split of 48–52 against the Coalition, which points to an ALP win if an election had been held last weekend. At first sight, these figures would seem to contradict the ones about preferred PM — how can we prefer Howard ahead of Beazley, but the ALP over the Coalition?

The answer is we’re a long way from election fever.

Howard’s been here before. In 2001, he and his party were entirely on the nose before being saved by the Tampa, 9/11 and Beazley’s pussyfooting. And in 2004, Howard was saved again, this time by Latham’s boofheadedness and Labor’s general ineptitude.

So where does the leadership tussle of the last ten days leave us?

Thanks to Bill Leak.

In May, when Howard was overseas being stroked and fondled by US President George W Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, I thought that he’d be cashing in his chips around September this year. ‘Go out on top, young man,’ croaked the spirit of Sir Robert Menzies. Everyone, even Piers Akerman, heard the ghostly rattle, and the doctrine of ‘the elegant departure’ was put out there among the dank demi-monde that is the Australian media.

And for a few weeks, the commentariat toyed with the possibility that Howard was toying with the possibility of calling it a day.

But now?

If Howard were to retire tomorrow (barring such legitimate triggers as personal or family illness) the move would not be read as his going out ‘on top’. It would not be elegant. It would be interpreted as either weakness, fear or fatigue.

If nothing else, Howard’s natural streak of bloody-mindedness will begin to kick in and convince him to keep going just to show us (and Costello) that he still has ‘it’; that he’s neither weak, nor afraid, nor tired.

Who knows, Howard may even look around for another couple of policies to implement while his Senate majority holds. Anyone for a commercialised ABC? Private schools for all? Medicare without bulk-billing? Non-compulsory voting? Compulsory year-round cricket clinics?

And goodness gracious me, even the Labor Premiers love him now. They were all over him after the COAG meeting almost as much as that group of Queensland teenage girls who mobbed Howard at the Sydney Opera House last week: ‘Ooooh, you’re so cute!’ cooed one of the girls, or was that Peter Beattie?

Maybe, during his fifth (and sixth?) terms Howard can re-configure federalism in his own image. Every boy needs a hobby.

And don’t forget the heart-warming images we were shown on Tuesday night of our re-energised PM holding hands with East Timor’s Prime Minister José Ramos Horta and vigorously hugging President Xanana Gusmão. Howard is becoming quite an Asia junkie in his pomp, and he could conceivably decide that his legacy would be enhanced by a new rapprochement with Indonesia, or a concerted, neo-colonialist push to quell the so-called ‘ring of instability’ to our north.

Or he could back Abbott and Brough’s new paternalism in Indigenous Australia.

And then there’s the tilt for the 2018 World Cup. Was he just foxng when he said that there would definitely be a new Prime Minister by then?

Anything’s possible now. The sky’s the limit.

Thanks Peter.

José Borghino


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