If you’re reading this on Wednesday 26 July, you’re doing so on John Howard’s 67 th birthday. Not that anyone cares much about a politician’s birthday normally, but every one of the PM’s is now a milestone in itself. Ever since he invoked Paul McCartney’s delineation of old age, we’ve come to greet each candle past 64 with a certain expectant trepidation.
In fact, as we’ve seen this year, we start feeling the birthday angst weeks before the big day arrives. But the prevarication about leadership will be over soon.
John Howard has called a special Coalition Party room meeting for Monday 7 August the day before Parliament resumes. That’s the meeting at which he is now expected to announce he’ll be staying on to fight the next election and that’s the day that may well spell the end of Peter Costello’s ambition.
Having called his leader a liar and given us an insight into the guiding moral principles of his own Baptist upbringing, you’d have to think that at this point the Treasurer will need to take a stand or watch his leadership prospects trickle away and be submerged by the rising profiles of other contenders.
After all, if Howard wins in 2007 he won’t be going anywhere until at least 2009 and by then Malcolm Turnbull could be Treasurer and Alex Downer could be Secretary General of the UN. Stranger things have happened, and two years is a long time in politics.
After the latest bitter round of leadership wrangling, Howard now knows for certain that the overwhelming majority of his Party room want him to stay in the job. He already knew it, of course, but he probably didn’t fully appreciate the passion with which the sentiment is held by so many.
The events of the past few weeks have forced many on the Coalition side to think a lot harder about the leadership than they might otherwise have felt the need to. And it definitely gives Howard’s line about staying as long as the Party wants him more weight.
But if John Howard stays, Peter Costello will have to finally decide whether he’ll burn down the house like Paul Keating did, so he can rebuild it to his own design? Or will he once again stop at the garage, when he realises that he’ll have to sacrifice his own big white ministerial limo? No doubt, when the time comes, there’ll be public displays of disappointment and sullen spleen-venting, but on past form you’d have to say he’s unlikely to go back to driving his own Camira to work.
Which brings us to the assumption that John Howard will actually win the 2007 poll. The Party room clearly believes he’s their best chance, and the polls suggest the voters think so too. Newspoll put him way out in front of Costello and more importantly for the Liberal party room, Kim Beazley.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.
The message is: the Party and the electorate like certainty. But we are now entering some very uncertain times.
If Peter Costello defies his default settings and walks, he could be a very destructive force. His departure would change the landscape completely. Even if he stays in the job, his relationship with Howard has now deteriorated so much that it seems unworkable. He’s called Howard a liar and publicly challenged his morality. Imagine how difficult it will be for them to go into an election campaign side by side. Last year, Costello was saying privately that it wouldn’t happen again.
Even if it does, the next 12 months will surely test the economic certainty that most people have come to take for granted. Interest rates are likely to rise again soon and petrol isn’t going to get any cheaper. And then there’s IR.
Privately, backbenchers say IR is still a live issue. The campaigning by the unions and the Labor Party has been effective and the individual cases of woe are starting to eat away at voter security. Both sides recognise this. But for Labor, this is sweet uncertainty, and they’re pinning everything on caramelising it as much as possible between now and the poll. If they can do that, and at least appear electable by settling down their own internal squabbles, then they believe they might, just might, be in with a chance. But even the most optimistic of them realise it’s a big task Labor has to win 17 seats.
On paper, the proposed redistribution of electorates in NSW and Queensland would reduce the swing required from just over 5 per cent to about 3.5 per cent. That might initially look good for Labor, but the hardheads admit that at best if they can hold on to Parramatta the new boundaries might deliver them one extra seat in NSW. That still leaves another 15 to win.
It now seems clear that Kim Beazley will be leading Labor to the 2007 poll. Many of his frontbenchers, however, are still looking for an improvement in his performance, and quite a few of them have returned to Australia from their study tours in the northern hemisphere with a few pointers. Most notably those who spent any time in the UK in the past few weeks have returned with very favourable assessment of the political tactics and performances of the young British Conservative Party leader, David Cameron.
The two Parties are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but their predicaments are analogous. Sure, Tony Blair has already announced he’s leaving but like the ALP, the Tories are fighting a popular and entrenched Government.
Cameron’s style is conversational and not always negative. He accepts that not everything British Labor has done is bad but stresses the importance of doing even better. It may just be rhetoric, of course, but it is proving to be effective.
Whoever they end up facing next year, Labor frontbenchers want the IR campaign to continue at full throttle but they do also believe a successful strategy can’t be simply a negative one.
Tell that to the birthday boy a past master of the winning negative campaign.
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