September 09, 2007 | Graham

Still wanted; still in the best interests

Should John Howard abdicate? Various Newscorp columnists and analysts, such as Andrew Bolt, Paul Kelly and Janet Albrechtsen, think so. Is this their view, their organisation’s, or are they being fed by would be successors to Howard? In other words, does it have legs? Hard to tell, and it doesn’t really matter – from the Liberal Party’s point of view, as well as the country’s, it is a bad idea.
Public opinion polls are unequivocal. Howard is going to lose this election. In which case the Coalition’s most immediate job is to ensure it retains enough seats to make the incoming Labor government accountable. Howard needs to be leader to achieve this.
It’s true that Howard is part of the problem. Voters have switched-off him. But that doesn’t mean they will switch-on to someone else. The last three elections have been a contest between certainty and risk. Electors don’t like Howard, don’t particularly like his agenda and they’ve liked his opponents and liked their agendas. The difference is that they believe that Howard will deliver and his opponents will not. So faced with a choice between the certain and the uncertain they’ve chosen certainty.
The Liberal Party has generally been behind with electors on most issues, but their perceived greater reliability has trumped that every time, allied to strengths in economics and foreign affairs. This election they are not so dominant in economics and foreign affairs, leaving only reliability. Howard is the key to that reliability: “Love me or loathe me, you know what I stand for”.
Peter Costello is the alternative to John Howard, but despite being in the public eye as Treasurer for eleven years, voters still don’t know what he stands for. A change to Costello wouldn’t rob the ALP of policy primacy, but it would turn the Coalition into at least as risky a proposition as Labor because the new leader would bring uncertainty. Probably more risky, because Rudd has been busily painting in his own unknowns to the point where voters think they know him.
So with Costello you definitely lose your only edge, while with Howard, you have a better chance of retaining at least some part of it.
Worse, the ALP would paint in Costello’s details. “You want to know what Costello stands for?” they would say. “He stands only for the Liberals’ frantic desire to hold onto government. He’s Howard’s last trick. Don’t be taken in by him.”
Precedent supports this anlaysis. True, Bob Hawke was successfully jammed in at the last moment, but that was an election that the opposition was going to win, and Hawke was a very well-known Australian by this stage in his career. In 1989 in Queensland, facing defeat at the hands of the ALP as a result of the Fitzgerald Committee of Inquiry, the National Party replaced Mike Ahern with Russell Cooper. It made no difference, and a young Kevin Rudd got to run the Premier’s office as a result.
In 2003, although he’d been in the public eye as leader for some time, New South Wales voters judged John Brogden too unknown to replace Bob Carr. He could have made it in 2007 after proving himself in the previous election, but by then he’d been replaced by Peter Debnam, who again was judged too unknown. Colin Barnett had similar problems in Western Australia, as did Ted Bailieu in Victoria.
Some of the commentators draw an analogy with the way that Gordon Brown has been welcomed as Prime Minister of Britain. The circumstances are completely different. It was an orderly hand-over mid-term, and Brown is taking votes from a Conservative Party that has been trying to almost move to the left of Labor. Brown’s taken the votes from the Conservatives by moving Labour to the left as well, at least in terms of perceptions. Brown has differentiated himself from Blair in policy terms, but apart from a whinge about spending, Costello has no significant differences with the PM.
In the UK voters had moved to the Conservatives almost as a way of sending Labour a message of where they wanted it to stand – a mid-term shot over the bows. Now the message appears to have been heard by Brown Labour they’ve moved back. In Australia voters have just moved, and it is the end of term. They’re looking for a change of government, not a change of leader or direction in the ruling party.
There are other problems with deposing Howard. Any change means you definitely have to defer the election until December, something which is starting to look untenable. Any advertising that was “in the can” will need to be redone, but before that, you’ll need to redo all the research. Strike off at least a couple of months.
Then there are personnel issues. Howard’s staff are the only ones who understand how the jigsaw of the government fits together. Even if they stay, and even if they are co-operative, they still need to realign all their understandings for a new boss. And that’s assuming he doesn’t want to bring his own staff along with him. If he does there will be weeks worth of internal administrative chaos. (That was probably the biggest problem that Bruce Flegg encountered in Queensland last year when he replaced Liberal Leader Bob Quinn in a last minute panic move weeks before the election).
And then once you replace the Prime Minister you’ll also have to replace the Treasurer. The knock-on effects mean that just as you are moving into an election a number of ministers are moving into unfamiliar portfolios and new offices. You could cure that by having Costello retain dual roles, but that would shout “panic” even louder. Maybe you could combine Finance and Treasury for the course of the election and limit the moves to one. This would only be likely to be an option if Howard went willingly. If he doesn’t go willingly, promises and undertakings will have to be made to swing support behind the new regime, which generally means some promotions.
The last reason why it would be madness to depose Howard is that, even though he is likely to lose, he is the only member of the government who is capable of delivering an effective, cut-through, political line. Costello might be good in Parliament, but only John Winston Howard has shown he can cut it on the stump. The government needs to change direction in its attack on Rudd, and there are viable alternative strategies (although probably not winning ones). If it does change direction, then it will need its best advocate putting the case. All talk of deposing him does is make it more difficult for him to focus on the necessary change in tack, and plays into the ALP’s hands.

Posted by Graham at 1:35 pm | Comments (6) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. Graham – very thorough and considered analysis. It’s interesting to me that your consistent line – that voters don’t like Howard – differs from many commentators, who think that this is the logic of the “Howard haters”. e.g. Paul Kelly’s line last week was that they did, but adjudged the better part of his contribution to be in the past. I’m guessing yours is partly premised on TNFs qualitative surveys over the years – I was struck when reading Kelly’s piece that he did not bother to support his divinations into the electoral mind with anything much.

    Comment by Jason Wilson — September 10, 2007 @ 11:52 am

  2. Thanks for this illuminating article. I think, however, that some important elements are not being ‘brought to light’. People are at last waking up to the uncomfortable reality that John Howard is a fraud. His elusive allure has been skilfully crafted in the realms of the ‘politics of fear’, as described by Carmen Lawrence, in her book and by Winnifred Louis, who describes how John Howard made Australians scared of very vulnerable asylum seekers.
    The people who were locked up in Woomera and Baxter and other expressions of hell are now standing next to us in the supermarket queue and waiting outside the same schools for their children to emerge. They are part of us. We should not be very happy about the deliberate harm that Phillip Ruddock and others did to the mental health of these people. Just read the reports from Sev Ozdowski of the Human Rights Commission and from Drs Louise Newman and Jon Jureidini.
    Australians are starting to realise that they do not want to have this gnawing at their uneasy consciences. Silently, Australians have realised that they feel no safer going along with mandatory detention of asylum seekers and would prefer to look their neighbours in the eye.
    John Howard tacitly sanctioned the torture of Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks in Guantanamo Bay and did nothing about it. So much for the marvellous special chummy relationship John Howard boasts with President of the USA. Australians are entitled to discover how expensive it is to buy over-priced weapons systems that we only need for ‘interoperability’ not for the defence of Australia and the poor return for our farmers afforded by the Free Trade Agreement.
    You say that John Howard’s “strengths [are] in economics and foreign affairs”. Both of these assertions that are often regarded as ‘given’. On economics – our “strong economy” has been based on an unhealthy reliance on digging up minerals, not on a sound industry or innovation policy and ‘dead lucky’ that the Howard regime coincided with rapid growth in China. The wealth from this boom has mostly been squandered with no thought of the future.
    What if we try to “paint in Costello’s details”? This former member of the HR Nichol Society wants to remove unfair dismissal for 100% of the Australian workforce. Watch out for the smirk from this man who fuels the flames of fundamentalists. “He stands only for the Liberals’ frantic desire to hold onto government. He’s Howard’s last trick. Don’t be taken in by him.”

    Comment by Willy Bach — September 10, 2007 @ 12:08 pm

  3. Good and insightful analysis. I think there is a Costelloite group in the electorate: private-sector managers and professionals who think Howard is yesterday’s man. Costello would help with them but his negatives with others and the loss of Howard’s positives would swamp any gain.

    Comment by Geoff Robinson — September 10, 2007 @ 12:19 pm

  4. Absolutely spot on – to change leadership now would be a disaster for the Liberals. If it had happened earliere Costello may heve been able to establish himself and project a different style of leadership (which would probably be more palatable to the voters – viz. less aligned with Bush and more environmentally conscious). But now is far too late.
    Not quite so sure about the inevitability of Labor’s win though. After all why change when the only difference Rudd is offering is a return to union power. The economy has never been stronger, unemployment is at its lowest.”If it aint broke, don’t fix it”.

    Comment by Noreen Wills — September 10, 2007 @ 12:42 pm

  5. Willy Bach, so you think that we stand beside the illegal entrants in the supermarkets etc., you must live in a fools paradise, just come down to Dandenong and Springvale. The old inhabitants have moved out and left the illegal entrants to their own paradise, I have no idea why they do not want their women and children sexually abused and their cars being involved in accidents because of unlicenced drivers driving unregistered cars, to put it bluntly we are no longer safe to walk the streets so moved on. Come on Willy I dare you to spend a week down here then write another article and by the way, it has nothing to do with race or religion, it is the behaviour of some of them and I would feel the same about you if your behaviour copied theirs.

    Comment by Annie E. Hawke — September 10, 2007 @ 1:30 pm

  6. For all those Coalition supporters who are so worried about a future economy under the ALP, here is your opportunity.
    Make some money by backing JWH to win the 2007 Election. Look at the Odds below, you can retire rich!. (As at 10/09/2007)
    Win only.
    1. LABOR 1.42
    2. COALITION 2.90
    It’s time to put your money where your mouth is.

    Comment by sam from sunshine — September 10, 2007 @ 2:42 pm

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