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Not relaxed and comfortable with Howard

By Graham Young - posted Saturday, 31 March 2001


The Ryan by-election result could have been worse for Prime Minister John Howard, and it could have been better. The swing against the government of 9.5% is much higher than the average, but well below the tidemarks left by the Canberra and Bass by-elections which signalled the end of the Keating and Whitlam governments. Were Howard not trailing so badly in the public opinion polls, Ryan might be dismissed as not being a really big deal. But he is, and an ALP win or near win was always going to create psychological eddies that will affect the federal election.

Not that a by-election result has any real predictive power. By-elections are a one-off isolated event that may cause the various participants to change their actions - like Charles Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Added to that, there were a lot of one-off factors in Ryan that should not be present at a general election. By the end of this year people will be used to filling out their BAS returns, and the one-off GST effects that have led to an economic downturn should have worked their way through the system. Liberal Party machinations were a big factor in the result. Late last year Liberal Party polling was apparently saying that the biggest hesitation to voting Liberal was Liberal Party officials. John Moore's unpopularity and his resignation leading to an unnecessary poll would have added to that, as well as the branch stacking operations of the pretenders to his throne.

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Not that everything ran against John Howard. Liberal Candidate Bob Tucker is the best new candidate the Liberal Party has preselected in a long time. He has the ability, despite being a late starter, to go all the way, and his qualities were generally recognised. This is not something that the ALP claimed for their candidate, Leonie Short.

There are a number of lessons for the Liberal Party from Ryan. Bad as the result might be, it was still markedly better than the State Election results. Applying the State results to Ryan the ALP would have won 60% of the vote on a two-party preferred basis. This underlines just how hopeless the State Liberal Party Branch is. Howard can lose the next election just on marginal seats in Queensland and he needs to reform his state branch urgently. As a result of its state election result it is a blank sheet begging to be written on. The challenge is to make sure that the factional warlords who have divided the organisation don't get the chance to take their crayons to it. Those who have been running the party for the past four years need to shoulder the blame and get out of the way. By remaining where they are, they signal to the public that the party has not learned the lesson it has been given.

The party needs to reach out into its constituency and involve fresh players. It needs a senior community figure as its next President (not a superannuated parliamentarian), and one with business support who will be able to dictate terms in the bankrupt party. It also needs to reform its preselection procedures, to either return to a collegiate system, or have a proper plebiscite along US lines. It can't afford more incestuous branch stacking, ethnic or otherwise. The need for good candidates is obvious, but under current arrangements good candidates aren't likely to risk their good name signing up with the Liberals.

At a Federal level Howard needs to do considerable work to reform his campaigning capacity and to set the right policy groundwork. The Ryan campaign showed that even the "A" team from the Federal Secretariat really only plays in the club comps. The Liberals spent the first four weeks of the campaign denying the obvious - that the Labor Party was ahead, and that electors wanted to give the government a kick. They said that the campaign was about local issues, but seemed keen to prove that Tucker would be their man in Ryan rather than Ryan's man in Canberra, trundling what seemed like the whole Federal Cabinet through in relay.

The early campaign featured two John Howards - the good John Howard returning the 1.5c a litre on petrol and his evil twin, the "non-core promises" John Howard who had taken it away. Howard was wrestling with himself while Kim Beazley barracked from the side lines.

It was not until the last week when Liberal candidate Bob Tucker persuaded the strategists to change tack that they clawed back support. The Liberals admitted they were in trouble; that the electorate wanted to give them a kick; and urged voters to ask themselves what message this would send to Beazley. These are the messages that they should have been pushing all along.

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If Howard wants to repair his standing he has to start playing the politics of compare and contrast. He has to ask himself how it was that the Hawke and Keating Governments survived for 13 years after implementing a much more punishing reform campaign than he has attempted. One of the ways they did was to continually remind people about the failings of the previous Fraser Government. He has to paint in the policy detail on Kim Beazley and remind electors of Beazley's record as the "Minister for Unemployment" and father of the Collins-Class submarine and so on, under Keating and Hawke.

Howard also has to make up his mind which twin he is. In my view, no-one is going to reward the nice John Howard. When he gave back the 1.5c a litre on fuel it didn't lift him in the polls at all, just undermined his reputation for economic integrity. When it comes to giving, he will be hard pressed to promise more than Beazley.

But on their own these repairs will not be enough. He has to paint a world view that shows the benefits of his policies, not react to issues on a case-by-case basis. Every successful Prime Minister has had key phrases with which he has become associated which convey his vision of the world. Chifley had a "light on the hill", Menzies stood for "the forgotten people", Whitlam has historical inevitability - "It's Time", and Malcolm Fraser knew that "Things weren't meant to be easy".

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This article was first published in The Brisbane Line, newsletter of The Brisbane Institute.



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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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