One morning in his tenth year as prime minister, John Winston Howard awoke in the master bedroom of Kirribilli House to realise that he had become not only omnipotent but invincible.
His demolition of Labor’s young pretender, Mark Latham, had probably put the next election beyond the reach of any opponent, let alone one as accommodating as his serial victim, Kim Beazley. The result had also made his leadership virtually unchallengeable. Peter Costello’s occasional forays could and would be dismissed as mere showmanship, in keeping with his dilettante approach to politics. Tony Abbott had long ceased to be a threat, and Brendan Nelson was clearly destined for the role of bridesmaid, if that. The only one who went close to matching him in megalomania, Malcolm Turnbull, was a full political generation away.
Howard’s courtiers in the parliament and in the media were now assuring him that he could, and should, go on for years - even for another decade, which would put him in reach of the hitherto unattainable record of Sir Robert Menzies, once the immortal nonpareil but now perhaps no more than a John the Baptist heralding the coming of the Messiah. It was no longer a question of the Howard Years; we were now talking about the Howard Age, the Howard Epoch. Future historians would see 1996 as the new Year Zero, the time when it truly all began.
Okay, perhaps the hubris didn’t extend quite that far, but there can be little doubt that as the election year of 2007 approached, our Dear Leader felt a bit like his idols in the Australian cricket team: to win, all he had to do was turn up. Of course, he observed the rituals: he was still prime minister only with the approval of his party and the electorate; he was always aware that this approval could be withdrawn at any time; there was absolutely no room for smugness and he was ’umble, very ’umble, kind sir or madam as the case may be. But given his track record as an election winner, 2007 should be a stroll in the park.
True, Iraq was not exactly looking a picture, but the cut-and-run option was still unpopular and could be used to beat Labor about the head if the war loomed as a major issue with voters, which seemed unlikely. The terrorism threat had gone off the boil a bit, but there were plenty of willing bigots among his posse of tame media commentators who could be relied on to ramp it up, if the occasion demanded.
The great wheat-for-weapons scandal, accurately described as the worst corruption case in Australian history, had been put to bed through a combination of skilled political management, denial and obfuscation; in spite of commendable efforts by the Opposition and the media to explain to the public that the government had, at the very least, been appallingly negligent and incompetent, the punters just weren’t interested.
WorkChoices was a bit of a worry, with an increasing number of families being directly affected by its more draconian aspects and so many people knowing someone who claimed to have been treated unfairly; a few of the more excitable commentators were predicting that the angst would still be a major factor by election time.
But then, they had said that about the GST, which directly affected absolutely everybody, and that had settled into place very nicely, thank you. There were a couple of other issues exciting the chattering classes, but no cause for alarm: the drought was a nuisance, but surely no one could blame him for that, and the wider question of climate change remained a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand on the distant horizon. The Americans still hadn’t tried bloody David Hicks, but Australians had put up with his arbitrary imprisonment and probable torture for nearly five years with commendable equanimity; there was no reason to believe that this was about to change.
The only real problem was interest rates - which perversely kept going up, despite his constant appearances during the last campaign behind a banner that said he was keeping them down. Still, look at the fine print: they were an awful lot lower than the 17 per cent under the arch demon Paul Keating (let alone the 21 per cent under the beneficent treasurer John Howard, but we won’t go into that).
The Big Lie that interest rates would always be higher under Labor had worked well enough last time, and with a bit of a tweak could be adapted to fit the line that in troubled times, you need the steady hand of Honest John to keep things under control. After all, he has guided you through an unprecedented period of prosperity, even if most of it is actually debt - but hey, it’s better than paying rent. Most importantly, you still trust him; after all, he got away with the last ten years, proving that even on his worst day he can still fool most of the people for enough of the time.
On 1 December 2006, the first day of summer, the sky was blue, the grass was green, the birds were on the wing and the snails were on the thorn, the Howards were in Kirribilli House and all was right with the world.
That, in any case, was the gloomy picture from what is euphemistically described as the beer garden of the Billinudgel Hotel, where I sat brooding over the fact that next year was looking particularly bleak, because I wouldn’t even have Arthur Sinodinis to kick around. Sinodinis, for many years Howard’s chief enforcer, was moving on; from my point of view, he would be missed chiefly as an almost-inexhaustible subject of limericks. I penned a farewell missive:
Oh Arthur! My lost Sinodinis!
A cloud has descended between us.
If you must quit the game
At least leave me your name
To rhyme with George Megalogenis.
Not even one of my best. But then, right on cue, the cavalry arrived: a message from a usually reliable source assured me that Kevin Rudd, so long as he was supported by Julia Gillard as deputy, had the numbers to knock off Kim Beazley.