Australia: End of the line for he who set military forces on impoverished asylum-seekers in 2001 Print E-mail

London ~~ Friday November 23, 2007

Decade of victories set to end in day of humiliation for lame duck

Bernard Lagan in Sydney

 He is the world’s most enduring conservative leader, a man of steel, in the words of George W. Bush. Yet, after more than a decade in office and, now, overseeing an economic boom of a scale barely seen before in Australia, John Howard appears to be heading for oblivion when the country votes tomorrow.

It could not only be the end of the Liberal-National coalition Government that he has led since 1996 but also, ignominiously, the loss of the seat of Bennelong in suburban Sydney that Mr Howard has represented for 33 years in the Australian Parliament.

Were he to lose his seat – and the polls say that it is likely - Mr Howard will be only the second prime minister in Australian history to find himself voted out of Parliament.

Yesterday he was battling to contain a scandal after Liberal campaigners were exposed distributing pamphlets accusing the Opposition of sympathising with terrorists. Howard supporters were caught delivering leaflets attributed to a bogus Islamic organisation that urged voters to support the opposition Labor Party because it approved of forgiving terrorists involved in the deadly 2002 Bali nightclub bombings.

“I do not believe that the Australian Labor Party has ever had sympathy for the Bali bombings, and I thought it was an outrageous thing to say,” Mr Howard said. “It was tasteless and offensive.”

It is a remarkable comedown for the big-spending populist. He is the diminutive 69-year-old who, memorably, turned the country’s SAS forces on a bunch of impoverished, ragged asylum-seekers before winning the 2001 election. He is the former solicitor who used his renowned capacity for fear-mongering to win the last election in 2004, when he mounted a scare campaign against the Labor Party’s ability to hold down interest rates. He is the hard-of-hearing grandad who prides himself on being in touch with the aspirations of ordinary Australians.

There is no single answer for John Howard’s rapidly declining popularity. Undoubtedly he has suffered poor luck. He has, however, also been the victim of his own unfortunate timing and misread the true level of support he enjoys among his colleagues. And he has stayed too long.

Mr Howard’s poor luck came in the middle of the six-week election campaign when the central Reserve Bank of Australia decided to increase interest rates just as he was declaring that only his Government could be trusted to run the economy. The rate increase was the sixth since the 2004 election, in which Mr Howard crushed Mark Latham, then Labor leader, by claiming that he lacked the experience to manage the economy.

After the latest increase, Mr Howard protested that his Government was a victim of its own economic success, which is partly true because the mining-led boom has fuelled inflation. This hardly blunted a claim by Kevin Rudd, the Labor leader, that the Prime Minister could no longer be trusted.

This week Mr Howard had the opportunity to revive his reelection chances at his party’s official campaign launch in Brisbane. He relied on his favourite late-campaign formula: the big spend. He offered another A$9.5 billion (£4 billion), taking the total value of his preelection promises to A$65 billion. Only two hours before Mr Howard’s speech, the Reserve Bank had given warning that further large increases in government spending would put yet more upward pressure on interest rates.

The economic commentary was scathing of Mr Howard’s tactics. That was why Mr Rudd attracted wild applause at his campaign launch two days later when he rejected the idea of further big spending promises by the Labor Party.

Finally, it was Mr Howard’s misreading of the support that he enjoyed from his ministers that forced him in September to declare that he would stand aside as Prime Minister during his next term if he won tomorrow’s election. He nominated Peter Costello, 50, his ambitious deputy and Treasurer, as his successor.

The Prime Minister’s declaration has turned him into a lame duck. It has allowed the Labor Party to argue that nothing Mr Howard promises for the future can be believed because he will not stay in the job. And attempts by Mr Howard and Mr Costello to portray a newfound sense of bonhomie during the campaign have appeared forced and unconvincing.

Mr Howard was still arguing yesterday that the Government could win the election, but with the coalition trailing heavily in the polls, he appeared a man going through the motions, without conviction.

Long innings at the top

­ John Howard is the second longest-serving Prime Minister in Australia. The longest-serving was Robert Menzies, right, who held office twice for a total of 18 years

­ During his ten years in power, Mr Howard has outlasted five Japanese prime ministers, including Junichiro Koizumi – Japan’s longest-serving prime minister since the mid1980s

­ He has also seen off four Italian prime ministers, among them Silvio Berlusconi – who himself spent longer in office than any postwar Italian prime minister Tony Blair entered office a few months before Mr Howard was elected, and Gerhard Schröder’s entire seven years in power as German Chancellor came during his rule

­ Since 1997, Australia have won the Ashes five times and lost once.

­ The population of the country has risen by two million since that year

­ In the same period the England football team have had six head coaches: from Glenn Hoddle (1996-1999) through to Steve McClaren (20062007)

Times archive; agencies
Sydney Morning Herald ~~ Saturday November 24, 2007

Recycled, rejected and right off the rails

Alan Ramsey

The end of the line. Remember that heading in the Herald a few weeks back, after one of the opinion polls bumped up the Government's lousy standing a point or two? "Lazarus stirs", it said optimistically of John Howard. Wrong. It was just the flies moving. Yesterday, in the nation's Parliament, with hardly a politician to be seen anywhere, we got some election realism. Three rows of recycling bins, whacking big green ones with yellow lids. More than 300 of them.

Where? In the basement corridor of the ministerial wing. The bins seemed a more apt commentary than all the desperate, last-minute Coalition windbaggery going on around the nation on what is about to descend on the Prime Minister after 33 years in public life and almost 12 years remaking Australia in his own miserable, disfigured image. They arrived two days ago and whoever they're for, 48 hours before a single vote is cast today, you felt somebody, somewhere, finally got it right.

The end of the line.

Howard doesn't think so, obviously.

"Everybody at some point has to retire and depart the scene," he told ABC Radio's Chris Uhlmann yesterday, "and what I'm doing is not to mislead the public, to lay out my plans [for a change of Liberal leaders], to say there will be a transition well into the next term. It will be Peter Costello, the second most experienced person in public life and who's been at the centre of Australia's economic strength for the last 11½ years. You see, we are a team …"

Uhlmann: "But if you're not done after 11½ years, when will you be done? When can Australians make a change?"

Howard: "Well, it's a question of assessing what is good for the country. You keep focusing on the personalities. I just ask Australians, particularly those who haven't made up their mind, if they think our nation is fundamentally going in the right direction. I ask them not to change the government, because when you change the government, you do change the direction of the country."

Indeed you do.

And hallelujah! Howard obviously does not understand this is exactly what voters seem intent on doing, irrespective of some heroic assessments in the final opinion polls.

A clear majority remain heartily sick of the Prime Minister and his Coalition claque of tired mediocrities. The "it's time" factor has been driving political sentiment all year, just as the dominant policy issue in the cities has been the Government's hated Work Choices legislation.

Clearly, it has not occurred to Howard that, for almost a year, ever since Kevin Rudd became the Labor alternative, an overwhelming majority of voters agree it is, indeed, "a question of assessing what is good" for Australia.

What voters have been "assessing", in increasing numbers, is that they prefer Rudd's "fresh leadership" to Howard's "same as usual" approach. And if Howard couldn't bring himself to get out of the way and allow an election choice between Rudd and Costello, then his "fellow Australians", as he prefers to call them, rather than his 1996 appeals to "Australia's battlers", will use the ballot box to get rid of his government.

At Thursday's final National Press Club speech, ABC Television's Michael Brissenden confronted the issue of Howard's slippery behaviour in avoiding questions about what defeat for the Government says about his leadership.

Brissenden: "It's been pointed out that Paul Keating also said in 1996 that obviously if you change the leader, you change the country, too. When he was defeated, many on your side said this was a rejection of the sorts of things [Keating] stood for: political correctness, those sorts of things. If you are rejected [this time], does that mean the Australian people have rejected the change you've brought [about]?"

Howard: "Well, I'm not going to hypothesise about defeat, OK? And I don't believe we are going to be defeated. I believe we're going to win. I'm therefore not going to hypothesise and start reflecting and eliminating and getting into all of that. I am conscious [of Keating's remark] and I believe in 1996 people did want to change the direction of the country.

"[But] one of the big differences I don't find, as I go about the country, is that people want a change in the fundamental direction of Australia. I find that people are broadly happy [with it]. They have complaints. I mean, I understand that. A lot of people disagreed violently with everything I stand for, I understand that. And there are people unhappy with this or that. Some are saying we like your economic policies but we don't like other policies. I accept all that.

"But I've been in a lot of election campaigns [and] this is not an angry campaign. This is not. I don't actually think it's dirty, either. I mean, there's been some silly things done; I've talked about one of them [the fake terrorism pamphlet by Liberal Party goons] a bit. There's been a few silly things said elsewhere on the other side. But overall it's not a dirty campaign. It's not been an acrimonious campaign … So I don't think people do want to change [Australia's] fundamental direction."

It was a lot of blather that really didn't say much, other than he must be kidding himself.

Howard never thinks anything is wrong with his leadership, just as while he says he's "sorry" for the six increases in home mortgage rates since the last election, he refuses to acknowledge any public responsibility. Good heavens, no.

This is what John Howard is good at: sliding around responsibility, around accountability, for things that go wrong.

Why should anyone be surprised when he says, "No, of course Australians don't want to change the country's direction", however he defines that, just as he insists they really don't want to change any of his Government's policies, which are really very good for us all.

How then, you wonder, does he account for all those "fellow Australians" who tell the opinion pollsters his government stinks, his leadership most of all?

All that soothing tosh about "no anger" among voters as he "goes about the country", that it's not been a "dirty" campaign, though some "silly things" have been done, by both sides. He can't be serious, surely? If he does truly believe such twaddle, then this only emphasises how remote and out of touch he has become.

Yet Howard's true political "genius", if you like, is forever talking to what he sees as his base constituency as if they are no more than sheep. In this he might well be right.

Monday of this week was a Howard anniversary of sorts. On November 19, 1977, John Kerr, as governor-general, swore Howard in as Malcolm Fraser's treasurer after Melbourne's Phillip Lynch was forced to resign when he got caught up in a nasty, greedy land scandal in a wondrously named outer-suburban development called Stumpy Gully.

Thirty years later, most Australians have no idea what a very ordinary treasurer Howard turned out to be. Like Peter Costello, he was just another lawyer-politician salesman who knew bugger-all about economics.

It's a nice irony that the 30th anniversary of Howard's first big heave-ho up the slippery pole - he was treasurer for five years, while his first budget (in 1978) introduced an income tax surcharge, an increase in the Medicare levy and Australia's first petrol tax - should come on the first day of the last week of his last election campaign.

And, I continue to assert, his last week as Prime Minister.

Two days ago, an old Labor friend, sometimes referred to as Whispering Death, the nickname of that wonderful West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding, phoned to say, very quietly: "I think we might have got [him] this time." I think he's right.

The end of the line.