Hillary Bray explores when and why the PM will retire.

Nothing’s happening in Canberra at the moment so that means the real interest to media and political insiders is when John Howard will finally decide to retire, opening the way for Peter Costello to become Australia’s 26th Prime Minister.

This all may sound like the usual inward focus of the political classes, but at the moment, there is little else to do. With the government having gagged the political advisers who really know what happened about kids-in-the-watergate, that inquiry is unlikely to lead anywhere worthwhile. For all the hoopla over immigration and detainees, there will not be much political heat from Labor on the issue, as despite all the wailings of the left, the public is solidly behind the government’s position on locking up the asylum seekers.

For the average Parrot listener, the whole children overboard inquiry is a waste of time and money. If the children weren’t thrown overboard by the parents, then the navy should have done it for them, then thrown the parents after them and sailed away. Better the great white sharks take the dagoes than our good honest Aussie skin divers.

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And as for substantive issues, there is not much point Labor pursuing the government over its third term agenda. The government is still trying to work it out.

Which is why all the focus keeps turning to the succession. It’s an easy issue to understand and one which if the government mismanages could produce the sort of back stabbing and blood letting that attracts the press gallery even quicker than it does a pack of sharks.

So when will it be? Well, the big hint was given by the Short Man two years ago in an interview on ABC radio in Sydney. (The interviewer was Philip Clarke, who left at the end of the year to take on 2GB’s morning show. After a year of low ratings, he was replaced by the Parrot, and Clarke now fills the drive slot, his ratings increasing on the coat tails of the Parrot.)

The interview was conducted on 26 July 2000, the day of John Howard’s 61st birthday. Howard was clearly in a good mood, having benefited the week before by John Della Bosca’s unguarded comments to Maxine McKew, which completely undermined the Labor Party’s opposition to the GST. After discussing this and other issues, Clark chose the opportunity of Howard’s birthday to move to more reflective questions. After some digressions about ageing and family life, Clarke moved on to discussing retirement.

The transcript was as follows.

CLARKE: This is not meant to be a loaded question at all, but looking ahead, do you see yourself as the sort of person who, I mean some men I think see themselves as working for ever, always working, always staying busy, keeping busy, don’t look on the notion of retirement as an option. Other men think, look you know I have made a contribution I am happy to retire, there are other things I want to do in life. Where do you . . .

RODENT: I don’t . . .

CLARKE: That is not a loaded question, it’s not.

RODENT: No, look that is a fair question and I will be very frank in answering it. As far as my own political future is concerned, I have said before that if the Party wants me to lead it to another election, which will be at the end of next year, I am happy to do so. After that obviously one has to recognise, I’ll then be in my 63rd or 64th year, and you start to ask yourself and that’s fair enough. And nothing is forever. And I don’t have the view that I am so indispensable and so important and so vital that you know the Liberal Party will be bereft without me that is an arrogant view. By the same token, I have good, I have very good health and I am applying myself to the job very effectively and I am enjoying it. I see myself doing other things. I don’t propose to talk about them because that immediately incites a whole lot of debate and speculation and discussion how soon, when, what in what form. And there is nothing to be gained by that.

And so the interview continued along, with the significant hint having been dropped about retirement.

Now having listened to the interview at the time, the Prime Miniature appeared to have been caught slightly off-guard by the question. He’d been asked a series of very soft questions about his family, a topic he is always happy to digress on. Then he was asked about retirement, and appeared to give a very honest answer as to his thoughts.

Well, the question is, why did he do it? Was it calculated, a deliberate hint at a possible retirement? The Rodent rarely muses on something as politically important as retirement. He is a highly skilled politician who knows what a gift the hint of retirement would be to the Labor Party. So if it was an unguarded remark, why did he nominate 63 or 64? He would not have done the mathematics in his head on the spur of the moment. He must have already known that he would be 63 in 2002 and 64 in 2003, and at the normal retiring age of 65 in 2004, he would have been too close to the next election to retire.

What no one in the media seems to have thought about is why John Howard would be aware he turns 64 in 2003. In the back of her mind, Hillary had a niggling memory of a significant event occurring that month that John Howard would certainly know of.

Well, Hillary checked the list of past Prime Minister the other day, and it all fell into place.

John Winston Howard was born on 26 July 1939, five weeks short of Robert Menzies announcing that as Britain had declared war on Germany, Australia was also at war. What too many people assume is that he was named after the wartime exploits of Sir Winston Churchill. As his date of birth shows, this was not the case. In fact, Howard was conceived shortly after the Munich Agreement, which Chamberlain signed with Hitler, giving parts of Czechoslovakia to Germany in an attempt to ward off war. Churchill criticism of the agreement was no doubt in the Howard family’s mind. “How could honourable men with wide experience and fine records in the Great War condone a policy so cowardly? It was sordid, Squalid, sub-human, and suicidal ….The sequel to the sacrifice of honour.”

(As an aside, Hillary has always thought that poor old Mystic Meg Lees’s public handshake with the Short Man over the GST deal was the most unwise media stunt since Neville Chamberlain stepped from the plane after Munich, waived his piece of paper, declared “Peace in our time” and called Herr Hitler an honourable man. But we digress.)

So given the little fellas birth date, he will be 64 on 26 July 2003. The important point to remember is that he was sworn in as Prime Minister on 11 March 1996. On the date of his birthday he will have been Prime Minister for 7 years, 4 months and 15 days. This time span is very significant.

Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister is Sir Robert Menzies, serving two terms, one of 2 years, 4 months, 4 days, and a second record-breaking term of 16 years, 1 month, 8 days.

Second in line is Bob Hawke, serving 8 years, 9 months and ten days. The third longest serving is Malcolm Fraser, in office 11 November 1975 to 11 March 1983. Seven years and four months exactly.

What was that term for Fraser? Seven years and four months? And how long will Howard have been Prime Minister on his 64th birthday? Seven years, 4 months and fifteen days!

Hillary finds it frankly beyond belief that neither Howard or Hyacinth know exactly how long they have to be in office to pass Fraser’s record. Nothing would make them happier than to pass the record of the former Liberal Prime Minister. Since 1983, the Rodent has happily undermined the achievements of the Fraser government, and has also suffered the indignity of being attacked by Fraser over a range of actions in government.

So Hillary is absolutely sure that the Short Man knows when he passes Fraser’s record, and also how old he would be by that time. His comment in 2000 may have been a true Freudian slip, a momentary lapse as a calculation he knows well slipped from his tongue during a soft interview.

Of course, the fear in the Costello camp must be that the Prime Miniature wants to go one better than Fraser, to actually pass Hawke as well. But Hawke’s record is not passed until just before Christmas in 2004, more than 3 years after the last election in November 2001.

Which is where another calculation comes into place. The three year term of a Parliament does not begin until three years after the first sitting of a new Parliament. By delaying the first sitting after the 2001 election until February 2002, the government has ensured that the election can be put off until as late as May 2005. If he wants to be a real rodent, Howard plenty of time to pass Hawke if he stays until the next election.

And if he wants to do a real bastard act, he can even follow the lead of Menzies and retire on Australia Day, in 2005, having passed Hawke’s record, chosen the date of his retirement, leaving Costello no time in which to try and win the election.

This last scenario sounds far fetched, as the Prime Miniature still has great loyalty to the party in which he has been raised. But to think the Rodent will retire before his 64th birthday also seems far fetched, as it would mean missing out on passing Fraser’s record.

That means there are two reasons why next July will be of huge interest in the succession. In two weeks, John Howard passes Fraser’s record and hits 64. In the absence of anything else, speculation on the leadership can only mount as the fateful day approaches.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at hillarybray@crikey.com.au