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Still wanted; still in the best interests

By Graham Young - posted Tuesday, 11 September 2007


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.

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The Liberal Party has generally been behind on most issues with electors, 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 11 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.

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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 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 just makes it more difficult for him to focus on the necessary change in tack, and plays into the ALP's hands.

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First published in Ambit Gamit on September 10, 2007.



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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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