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Labor’s leadership problems have been a dream for the Liberal Party, not least by obscuring the fact that the real victor in leadership games over recent months has been the prime minister, John Howard. He had bought himself several years of peace from leadership speculation by ruminating about making a decision to retire when he was 64; then, at a time of his own choosing and before that birthday, he announced that after deep reflection, he had decided to hang on indefinitely. Not for his own sake, of course, but for the country and the party. Peter Costello may be generally agreed to be the heir apparent, but Howard, who owes him no favours and is well aware that Costello is itching to dismantle many of his monuments, can wait.

So nicely has Howard played it that the general reaction within the Liberal Party was one of relief. Howard has pretty much cemented an image of substance, solidity and experience and, even if he is far from the visionary, the idealist or the man who can appeal to the emotions, he is part of the furniture. He has had more than his share of luck, but good politicians make their luck. He’s taken some big gambles, and they appear to have succeeded. The way Labor is going at the moment, a Coalition victory might seem certain at the next election, but John Howard and the Liberals never take anything for granted. Howard, on the evidence, is a more certain winner than Costello, particularly as far as the focus groups and the opinion polls are concerned: the electorate has never quite warmed to the Treasurer.

This Cincinnatus has no farm—not in fact, nor in his heart. John Howard has very few personal friends, and almost no interests outside politics. He reads a little more, and a little more widely, than most politicians, but gets little satisfaction or intellectual pleasure from it—his skills and his instincts are visceral, not drawn from books. He could play some international diplomatic role, but is so used to playing the leader that he would find it difficult to take a brief. He is probably too old and too proud to prostitute himself, as Hawke has, to commerce.

In politics, he and his ideas will be dead the moment he leaves the stage, and there will be no queue of people calling to have him ruminate at gatherings. He is doomed to spend his retirement isolated and frustrated or, like Malcolm Fraser, as a Banquo. Small wonder he wants to stay on.

But the end of the Howard era could well be the end of the Coalition era as well. The government has had its time; indeed, it had pretty well run out of ideas and time before the last election, when a combination of events (September 11), opportunism (Tampa) and extraordinary indolence and moral cowardice by Labor gave it another go. While international events have continued to favour Howard, the government slips whenever it comes to domestic policy and it may well be beyond Howard’s power to engineer circumstances to his election timetable. Labor, however incompetently led, could win the next election; it would have to be extraordinarily badly led, or unlucky, to lose the one after.

A new leader could change all that for the Liberals. Costello had already been rehearsing a number of changes, symbolic as well as real, to show that there was now a completely new mind-set in charge. He had wanted to reposition the party on immigration, refugee policy and Aboriginal affairs—the source of much of the moral contempt in which the party is currently held by the elites. That now has to wait—and Costello fears that the wait may either be so long that he cannot get up a head of steam, or will last until Howard loses an election, dooming the Coalition to three or more terms in opposition. Costello may now never be prime minister.

What does this mean for Labor? An unspoken part of many of the early machinations against Simon Crean was the assumption that, at the next election, the Labor leader would be facing Costello, not Howard. Beazley’s anxiety to move was partly predicated on the assumption that Howard would go. Yet the idea that Beazley had a better chance against Costello than Crean, based on the notion that he is more popular among electors, was always fanciful. Beazley is a yesterday’s man, not the wave of the future. Affable perhaps, but no longer, after Tampa, with a shred of moral authority or idealism to inspire a new generation of Laborites. A man who caused more than half the paid-up membership of the party to desert Labor for the Greens at the last election.

A man who, in six years of opposition, could never articulate just what Labor stood for, and whose idea of policy was a collection of slogans confected in a focus group. A man, moreover, that Costello had played off a break for years.

Even a party desperate for a lift, a break, or a leader who commanded attention would be mad to go backwards to Beazley. If Crean is not good enough—and Beazley’s brigade makes a fairly convincing case that he is not—the party would be better seeking a younger man or woman able to inspire some passion among the followers. Or at least someone who is (as Crean is, to be fair) stolidly doing the homework, devising policies and running a race that the Coalition—and John Howard in particular—would ultimately be forced to enter.  

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.



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