A Damp Squib


The episode has not particularly increased the nation’s body of knowledge regarding the Liberal’s stymied leadership succession.

We knew, after all, about Ian McLachlan’s wallet-bound handwritten note. We knew about the aborted spill at APEC, when Howard blinked at history and then decided to stare down his cabinet anyway. We knew that Peter Costello never had the numbers, and never tried very hard to gather them either. We knew that as Prime Minster, John Howard wielded nearly absolute power over his backbench and party room.

On the other hand, it does provide the always fascinating spectacle of once mighty political leaders raking over the ashes of their failure. In many ways it provides a fitting companion to that long-forgotten 90s documentary Labor in Power, which was filmed before the 1993 Federal election that nearly everyone expected Labor to lose. Perhaps the ABC should package the two shows up in a nice little DVD box set.

Certain crumbs of history did fall off the table. Joe Hockey informs us that – quite incredibly – some of his Cabinet colleagues were unaware that workers might be worse off under WorkChoices. On the face of it, it’s an astonishing claim. After all, anyone who read the WorkChoices act could not fail to grasp its intent. On the other hand, the original bill was 1200 pages. Perhaps they simply took Kevin Andrews at his word.

To argue that anyone – really anyone at all – could honestly believe the Howard Government’s industrial relations reforms were not intended to tilt the balance against workers and towards bosses … well, they’d have to be, err, one of the McGaurans.

Hockey, incidentally, comes across as rather more connected with reality than many of his colleagues, some of whom still seem rather overwhelmed by the whole "Oh my God we lost government!" thing. Alexander Downer, for instance, seems to put the defeat down to one thing, "longevity", as if WorkChoices, Kyoto, David Hicks, Kevin Rudd, seven interest rate hikes and an extremely poor campaign had nothing to do with it.

We can forgive true Howard loyalists like Tony Abbott, of course. Perhaps the best line of the night comes from Arthur Sinodinos, who when asked by Liz Jackson whether the Government had underestimated Kevin Rudd, replies "I think by definition, if he’s won the election." Indeed.

The most interesting television – although it broke no news as such – was watching the sour squirmings of Peter Costello. Here we saw a bitter man. Denied what he must believe was his rightful opportunity to lead his party, Costello narrates, with dour satisfaction, how he decided to take his bat and ball and go home. Let’s hope he is paid handsomely in whatever corner office in the big end of town he ends up in. One suspects that no amount of remuneration will salve the bitter wormwood of his unfulfilled ambition.

Costello’s plight in 2006 and 2007 was no different from that of his colleagues at large. Hitched to the wagon of their Dear Leader, and apparently lacking the courage or ruthlessness required to dynamite him out of the throne, in the end they were forced to follow his leadership into defeat. Hockey’s description gives you a nice window into the fading morale of the troops last year: "Ultimately, when John Howard blew the whistle, we all jumped out of the trenches and went in to fight."

As for John Winston Howard, it’s difficult not to be astonished at the scale of his hubris.

Howard’s leadership in the 2004-7 term has been compared by many to some kind of Shakespearian tragedy, and it’s not hard to see why. Unable to relinquish the reigns of power, and clearly aware of the oncoming defeat, Howard steeled himself like some modern-day Macbeth to "try the last". It might have been enough, too – if he’d run a better campaign, and if he wasn’t up against such a clever opponent, and if the Senate victory in 2004 hadn’t allowed him to push ahead with WorkChoices. If, if, if.

Now, as 4 Corners makes clear, the plight he has left his party in is grave. Kevin Rudd seems assured of at least two terms, while the Liberals will have to work hard to avoid the splintering and annihilation of their party itself. Stories like this one will not help in that regard. A glance at the fate of their State-based colleagues should steel Federal Liberals for the task ahead.

For the left-wing "Howard haters", the show proved an engaging exercise in schadenfraude, as John Quiggin observes. Pilloried for so long for our reflexive hatred of "Australia’s most successful Prime Minister", watching his former colleagues dump on John Howard must have warmed the cockles of many an ABC viewer’s heart.

And therein lies the eventual opportunity for the Liberals, as Peter Botsman has pointed out in an article today. "When you become Prime Minister," he writes, "doors open, people smile seductively even when you are a nerd, crowds cheer, schedules are made around you, people pamper and pat. If you start to do overly well in the opinion polls, God help you."

As Oedipus found, hubris is eternal. The Liberals will need to work hard if they are to be in a position to take advantage of it in six years’ time.

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