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Is Howard a coward?
Hello. My project is done and I'm back on deck. Thank you to Fiona, Richard and David for keeping the show on the road. Before I give you my best guess on whether Howard will stay or go, I must disclose a personal interest.
On August 3, Penguin's publisher Bob Sessions rang me with a shock request - could I update Not Happy, John! in three weeks? Huh? I said I could if my old Webdiary friend and collaborator Jack Robertson agreed to come on board. He did, and the book goes to the printer this week.
So, it's hardly in my personal interest for Howard to resign before the election. The book is an indictment of his government, sure, but John Howard is the symbol of that government. And then there's the title!
There's one practical question to be answered in this leadership drama. Would the Coalition led by Peter Costello do better at the federal election than the Coalition led by Howard?
And there's one psychological question to be answered. Would John Howard be prepared to stand down if the answer to the practical question was yes?
The practical question
An eleven year old government has to stand on its record. No choice. Howard's record is Costello's record. Costello's been treasurer since Day 1. He's been a climate change sceptic since Day 1. Just ask Meg Less - in 1999 his jaw dropped with disbelief when she demanded assistance for renewable energy industries as her price fro the Democrats passing his GST. He built his career before going into politics on seeking to crush union power and completely deregulate industrial relations. He's shown sycophancy to Liberal Party donors by appointing Rob Gerard to the Reserve Bank Board knowing the tax office was after him for massive tax evasion and lying to authorities about it (see Nowhere to hide, Peter, on the Libs' million dollar man and Costello burns Gerard candle at both ends). He lambasted Rebel Libs in their 2005 challenge to the government's compulsory jailing of children in detention centres. He's approved the negation of civil rights through the never ending stream of 'terror' laws. He's been shoulder to shoulder with Howard in suppressing dissent, his latest trick is using the tax office to withdraw the tax deductibility of donations to charities which criticise government policy. He's been all the way with Howard on Iraq.
The Andrew Bolt led argument for change is that at least people will listen to Costello, whereas they've stopped listening to Howard. Why? They will only do so if he SAYS something different, i.e. changes policies. In today's Sunday Telegraph Matt Price today suggests he could bring on the Republic debate again, sign Kyoto, tone down WorkChoices, and be a little less sycophantic to George Bush. If he does any of those things he's saying the government has got all of them wrong in the last eleven years. Why on earth would the public vote for the bloke who helped get it so wrong? Putting Costello in would tear down the edifice of success the government crows about. It's an invitation for voters to go all the way with a new government. Why on earth not?! Why would anyone vote vote for the bloke with dirty hands, for heaven's sake!
Some people use the Gordon Brown example to bolster their case for leadership change. Tony Blair was unpopular because of Iraq. But on climate change and all sorts of other policy, the public agreed with Blair. And Blair gave Brown two years to get himself settled. We're talking about giving Costello an election campaign!
To my mind, changing horses now would worsen the Coalition's position going into an election. But just say Coalition MPs thought they were headed for a big defeat anyway, so why not risk all on a circuit breaker? Like Labor did with Latham, then Rudd, albeit from opposition and nearly a year from an election.
The psychological question
I was one of the few journos in the Press Gallery and elsewhere who believed Howard would not stand down when he reached 64. Remember that line? Most thought he'd have his eye on history and would retire in his prime before the 2004 election. I thought he was not only addicted to power, but that he had no life apart from his political one - indeed that there was now no separation between Howard the politician and Howard the person. This is why he can justify anything, however amoral - if it's good for him politically it automatically becomes good for the country. (For memories of the 2003 Howard decision, see Howard plays superman. Yesterday's man, or is there fire in the belly? and Costello's rainy day.)
To me, it is almost inconceivable that Howard would walk away now. His humiliation, as a man and a politician, would be complete. The bloke who held on till it was too late, then walked away from the last great battle. No, I think he'll give it one last try. You never know, he could even win it. If nothing else, this leadership speculation so close tho the election being called has given voters no option but to think hard about whether they really want a change.
There's one factor, though, that would give Howard pause for thought. One reason he's been so cruel to Costello, and it's a big one, is that Costello is a Victorian. Never underestimate the antipathy between NSW and Victoria in the Liberal Party. It goes back a long, long way, to when Victoria was protectionist and NSW was free trade. Howard lives at Kirribilli House partly to show that Sydney rules Australia. He has always wanted his successor to come from NSW, and so he's promoted, at various times, Abbott, Nelson and Turnbull as possible future leaders. Now, if he decides he has to stand down, what better way to end Costello's ambitions forever than by handing him the hospital pass? He'll lose badly, Howard can blame him for the loss - he would have done better - and Turnbull or another NSW contender - or even someone from anywhere but Victoria - will become leader. If Howard is thinking that way, there's a chance he'll hand over to Costello. But then, if Howard is thinking that way, Costello will know why.
So that's my opinion. What's yours?