Oh, Just Get On With It Already


Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

John Howard won the last Federal election on a single, well-crafted, sentence: ‘Interest rates will always be lower under the Coalition than they will be under a Labor Government.’

As far as Howard is concerned, that promise still stands, even though there have been five rate rises since then, and a sixth is likely before the end of the year.

As recently as August this year, Howard said: ‘The promise I made at the last election, and I repeat it today, is that interest rates would always be lower under a Coalition Government than under a Labor Government.’

The fact that six of Australia’s most eminent economists declared, three years ago, that such statements are nonsense, as interest rates are largely set in international markets, has not mattered at all. There is a simple reason for that: Australians, mostly, are good-hearted people; they like to believe their leaders and will usually do so up to a point.

We will know by Christmas whether John Howard has reached that point. He has promised us an election by then, even though, technically, he could hold off until 19 January next year.

Yet, Howard has already stayed longer than he said he would. He has said for years that he would remain as leader only as long as his Party wanted him. But he put that declaration firmly behind him shortly after last month’s APEC summit, when he defied senior Party members who wanted a change challenging them, in effect, to put up or shut up.

There was a price for his survival: Howard has now put his place in Liberal Party history at risk. He could have retired gracefully, after the APEC meeting, with his reputation intact. He was, after all, the small political giant who defeated Labor and kept the Liberals in power, Federally, for 11 years. All that and more is now on the table.

Howard’s decision to fight on was, generally, well received. For a short time, opinion polls showed that Howard had won back around half the lost support he would need to survive. His great and powerful friend, George W Bush, recalled, significantly, that he too had ‘come from behind’ to win and urged Australians not to write off Howard just yet. Howard himself is certainly taking that advice, declaring, boldly, that he can beat his more popular rival, Kevin Rudd.

Such declarations, though, have a mixed history. Before the 1983 elections, for example, Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser told many reporters, including myself, that ‘in some ways, Bob Hawke would be easier to beat than Bill Hayden.’ Fraser was never able to demonstrate that.

Howard now admits that Australians want to hear more about what he will do in his next term and less about what he has done already. So what might that be? His latest weekly radio broadcast, which might more accurately be described as a weekly puff piece, holds some clues. In it, Howard speaks primarily about his plans for job creation:

I want Australia to become a full employment economy where anyone who wants a job and is able to work, has a meaningful job that leads to a lasting career.

Could this be the line that launches the final phase of Howard’s career?

It’s hard to imagine.

Australia ‘s job market is already strong. In most cases, those who are having trouble finding work at present don’t have the skills the market needs most. And Howard is not likely to find enthusiastic supporters among the low-skilled. Indeed, the recent academic survey Australia  @ Work, which has been inducing so much spilt ink at The Australian and Joe Hockey’s office, has shown that their wages are likely to be about $100 a week lower under the Government’s Australian Workplace Agreements than they would have been under collective bargaining.

Low-paid workers know, only too well, that Howard is promising them more jobs, not more pay. There is a difference.

Overcommitted yuppies, struggling to meet both their mortgage payments and the demands of their rich lifestyles, are much more likely to switch their votes on interest rates than, say, poorly paid cleaners, who are promised new jobs.

As always, though, Australia’s politicians are happy to raid your pockets to secure their own jobs. Although the 2007 election campaign has not yet, officially, even been launched, our political leaders on both sides, have already forgotten Treasury Chief Ken Henry’s warning that Australia could be badly damaged by extravagant election promises.

Henry warned, back in May, that: ‘There’s a need to avoid policy interventions that do not add to supply capacity,’ as ‘these can be expected to be detrimental to productivity and to the growth in GDP per person.’

Yet the Sydney Morning Herald reports this week that Australia’s politicians have already made no less than $20 billion worth of election promises. And even in that race Rudd is well ahead of Howard, with $11.4 billion worth of promises to his name compared to the Coalition’s $9.7 billion.

Some commentators believe that the reason Howard is delaying announcing an election date is because he can continue running Government advertising, worth an estimated $1 million a day, until he actually calls the election. My skepticism, on that point, is based on the Bible, which reminds us that, ‘Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.’ Your reporter has always believed that God had a good point there, especially in relation to politicians. And in my view, Howard is driven by vanity, both in his manipulation of the current phoney war and the election campaign that lies beyond it.

Despite the bad opinion polls, Howard genuinely believes that he can win the coming election and that he is not facing ‘annihilation.’ This is either hubris, or a shrewd judgement. If, however, Howard is wrong, Australia’s conservatives have much to lose. As recent history has shown, State Liberal Parties have often found themselves populated by extremists when they no longer face the discipline of actually running a government. A Federal defeat which would put the Coalition in Opposition in every Australian parliament could well destroy the Liberal Party.

Howard would be blamed for it if he loses.

The last Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, found so little support among his former colleagues after his 1983 defeat that he was forced, as his former Press Secretary, David Barnett, once said, to go ‘all bolshie’ to win back at least a few friends.

A similar fate might yet await John Howard.

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