Howard Remains the Story


The fear and panic in the Coalition has been palpable for months but last week things got worse as internal jitters about John Howard’s leadership blossomed into very public, very damaging defeatism.

This week’s opinion poll figures widen the gap between a rampant ALP and a sullen Coalition. But the polls have been diabolical for the Government ever since the job of Opposition Leader passed from a knockabout bloke called Kim to a prim fellow named Kev in December last year. It’s not the latest poll (or the one before) that’s acted as a trigger for the current wailing and gnashing of teeth in Canberra. Sure the cumulative effects of the polls, their slow drip drip drip over the past nine months, has contributed. But it’s the Government’s inability to dent the consistent narrative (Rudd’s more popular than Howard) that’s produced this moment of volcanic frustration.

When Prime Minister John Howard uttered the ‘a’ word (annihilation) earlier this year, it was supposed to be a wake-up call to his troops and a circuit breaker for the run of bad media stories the Government had been attracting. So was the leaked Textor-Crosby polling that characterised Howard as ‘old and dishonest’.  Insiders even began admitting that the Howard machine was contemplating the ultimate humiliation — the loss of Bennelong to ex-ABC journalist Maxine McKew.

The rehashing in August of Peter Costello’s inept (and immediately rescinded) betrayals of his leader some years earlier, was all-too predictable. As were the attacks from the diminishing Left in the media.

What the Howard camp could not have foreseen was the mounting cacophony of voices from the Murdoch press calling for him to step down. In the lead up to APEC, Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen and even Paul Kelly were baying ‘Resign!’ in unison. The irony of this was rich; weren’t these the same cheerleaders of 2006 who lauded Howard as the ‘greatest Australian Prime Minister’?

Thanks to Bill Leak

If that wasn’t bad enough, The Australian‘s editorial  of 30 August more or less tapped the PM on the shoulder and suggested his time was up. (Like me, you might want to ask yourself at this point: Why is it that the Murdoch press is sounding so much like political consultants to the Liberal Party?)

As Howard’s made clear over the last few days he’s not for being tapped. How could he be? To leave now under his own steam, no matter what the opinion polls are saying, would be interpreted historically as deserting a sinking ship. Better to be seen to be going down with the HMAS Liberal, all guns blazing, than to make an unseemly scramble over the side wearing a dress and a wig.

If Howard won’t go quietly, the other alternative is for the ‘hard men’ in the Coalition machine to do more than tap him on the shoulder. It’s happened before (Gorton, Snedden, Howard, Peacock, Howard, Hewson, Downer).

It’s almost as if Howard’s begging for the Bob Hawke treatment: to be seen to be thrown off a cliff with a Caesar-load of daggers in his back. The difference of course is that, in December 1991, Paul Keating had resigned from the front bench six months earlier, after his first leadership challenge, and he had over a year to run before the next Federal election.

Peter Costello almost challenged Howard last year; did he or didn’t he? But over the past few days he’s kept eerily silent, while the News commentariat and his Cabinet colleagues have been blabbing. Maybe he’s expecting to be dragged over the threshold of The Lodge, kicking and screaming? Or maybe, he realises leadership of the Liberal Party under current circumstances is not just a poisoned chalice, it’s a political death wish.

And truth be told, would anyone else want to take over right now?

Malcolm Turnbull? Tony Abbott? Brendan Nelson? Is there anyone else?

(Gulp) Alexander Downer?

Watching Howard do the rock-jawed, Leonidas at Thermopylae impersonation on ABC TV’s 7:30 Report this week, I have to admit I felt sorry for him. Almost.

To hear Howard say that he would at this stage of an election campaign flick the switch to ‘planning for the future’ and setting out a new agenda for the Government’s next term was, in a word, pathetic. To be treated in this way by our ‘greatest ever Prime Minister’ was a strange feeling. It was insulting, but it was also that truly unfamiliar word in today’s political vocabulary — honest.

It’s only taken 11 years.

José Borghino

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.