Shake, rattle and roll with John Howard

He might be surprised at the description but at the moment he is jiving to the rock lyrics: shake, rattle and roll. The Prime Minister shaking, how? Well he is shaking his head on petrol prices, and says that record fuel prices are not his fault, it’s the Saudi oil barons who are to blame.

But there is also a little bit of shaking in his wrists. When Mr Howard delivered a Ministerial statement to Parliament on Monday last week, a weird parliamentary manoeuvre for that time in cycle of the sitting, he was quite nervous.

Where is the enormous confidence of a man in his tenth year of office with a comfortable majority? He grabbed the lectern at the dispatch box a bit too tightly and strove to make eye contact with the cameras as his staff had duly instructed him to. His nervousness in fact flows from his astute political instinct: no matter what the polls say he knows the government is hurting over the pain to families from record petrol prices.

What about the rattle? He reverted to his standard successful strategy if things get tough: rattle the money jar. The policy to offer $2000 grants to convert old cars to LPG, and $1000 for new cars, is targeted at making people think the Government will give them a handout to escape the spiralling petrol price cycle. But we punters might find it hard to get our fingers into this money jar with a long wait to book in the conversion and finally get back that Reserve Bank cheque.

John HowardAnd the good news story of the LPG grants program was successfully torpedoed by Labor. (Although I should admit a bias here, as the author who wrote the questions to the poor unsuspecting Minister of State fell into a bear trap in spectacular fashion: pure parliamentary theatre.)

But there are also rattles in the machinery of government. There was the rebellion on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, the debacle of the Nationals/Liberals aborted merger in Queensland and the dramatic decision to withdraw the migration bill on offshore processing of illegal entrants. The Howard political family wagon is not cruising smoothly, but rattling a lot with an engine not quite in tune.

Yet we should not underestimate the man. Part of his ongoing success is that he also knows when to roll. The migration decision showed that he will take the body blow to move on to the next issue. On the surface, it appears the loss might hurt his standing as he invested a fair amount of political capital in the bill. There is another hypothesis: maybe he always intended to roll on this one. Perhaps he knew the bill was a stretch and might in the end go down. By pushing it hard, he has something to show the Indonesian President after the outrage over the West Papuan asylum seeker decision. But when the political opposition heated up he showed his pragmatism and withdrew it. In the end this might have been a fight it was safer to lose.

The decision to allow a free vote on therapeutic cloning is another examJohn Howardple that Howard knows when to roll. The social conservatives do not have the numbers in the Liberal party room. The party room could have demanded the conscience vote itself, so why not make a virtue of necessity. Although this latest roll may be good politics for Howard, it means that the cross-party faction of ethical utilitarians are likely to win the day. Howard’s pragmatism here will open the door to a change that means human embryos (human beings) are created to be killed in a medical laboratory.



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