Lisa Liberal has been around the Liberal Party for many years and reckons Peter Costello has neither the skill, guile, personality or guts to blast John Howard out of the Lodge.

The absurd claim by Margo Kingston on Lateline on Friday night that the story was leaked by Howard was quite remarkable for a member of the parliamentary press gallery. It was up there with Margo’s effort on the same program to sound informed about the politics of Pim Fortuyn.

Peter Costello’s call to be king may yet be delayed further by the inscrutable John Howard. Political commentators who believe that Howard’s departure during this term is inevitable, may yet be proved wrong. As Howard said when last leading the Liberal Party; “they will have to blast me out of the job.”

It is generations since a Prime Minister so desperately loved the notion of being “Prime Minister.” There have been few who ached for the job as much as little Johnny and probably none who enjoyed the position because of what it made them, as much as Howard.

Menzies believed that Australia needed him as Prime Minister and that the country could not do without him. Whitlam saw the role as allowing him to make the changes to society that only he understood were needed and only he could make. Fraser saw the Lodge as his proper place in the scheme of men. Hawke saw himself as a man of destiny and Keating believed only he had the great vision necessary to bring greatness to the position.

Howard just loves being the Prime Minister. He is offended by the notion that his prize for decades of struggle should be handed on for no other reason than the upstart Costello sees it as his turn. Howard measures his battle and toil to get the job and compares that with the free ride Costello has had, and sees no merit in Costello’s claim.

Howard sees this Government as uniquely his. He believes that he won the first term and only he could have won the third term. This is his government to do as he will and he is not about to hand it over to an undeserving free loader.

While Howard is prepared publicly to give Costello some credit for the state of the economy, privately he believes he is the sole architect of the government’s reforms. He and he alone gave Australia industrial reforms and taxation reforms. His view is that Costello allowed Taxation Department bureaucrats to lead the government into the terrible mess which cost it the Ryan by election and nearly cost it government.

The leaking of the Shane Stone memo was Howard’s exculpation and a message to Costello for his failings. Other than on economic matters, Howard and Costello have very little in common. Howard does not approve of Costello’s social agenda, his position on aboriginal reconciliation and that of the Monarchy. Howard fears the time when Costello will become leader and sweep away his bastions of belief.

Howard’s history tells us something of his likely deliberations for the future. It should not be forgotten that Howard worked against the change to Downer and Costello. That having been said, Howard’s political career has often been at the expense of his political colleagues, invariably involving the innate devices which are a necessary part of the armament of men with the attribute common to McMahon, Hughes, Hawk and Howard.

Howard’s rise to Treasurer under Fraser came at the price of destroying Phillip Lynch while Lynch lay in a hospital bed heavily sedated with medication to combat excruciating pain. His subsequent replacement of Lynch as Deputy Leader was by the same method. Howard’s debilitating undermining of Peacock, is well documented.

John Hewson’s contempt for Howard did not arise from his own period of leadership but rather from that of Peacock’s. Howard subverted Peacock in the 1990 campaign by publicly undermining the corner stone of Peacock’s campaign promise to bring interest rates down rapidly from their historic high. Hewson spent almost the entire campaign as Shadow Treasurer, obviating Howard’s public utterances that it could not be done.

Howard used his well practiced unctuous innocence to be the honest politician who would not lie. “No, interest rates could not be brought down sharply”, repeated honest John at every opportunity as Hewson spent hours each day of the campaign in the media counteracting the political damage of the troublesome and treacherous Howard.

Could anyone forget Howard’s performance on election night as a television commentator. As early promising figures came in Howard looked decidedly glum, however he cheered up no end as the evening progressed and it became obvious that Labor was to be returned. Howard’s chances of becoming Prime Minister had survived.

Howard’s ambitions have always been singularly selfishly personal. The Coalition winning the next election without Howard, bears no weight on Howard’s deliberations about the timing of his departure.

John Howard’s options are not limited to resigning in the second half of next year or of seeking another term. The Prime Minister’s exclusive discretion in the timing of elections gives him great flexibility. Howard has the option of calling an election in the first half of next year.

There are a number of crucial pieces of legislation which will be put to the vote in the coming months. These include the ASIO terrorism bill, the unfair dismissal legislation and the media cross-ownership legislation. On the basis of the public comments of both the Labor Party and the Democrats it appears each of these bills will be rejected completely, or so extensively amended as to make them unacceptable to the Government.

In the context of an election, the media cross-ownership bill is the critical legislation. It is the very nature of the concentration of media ownership in Australia that makes it so potent in election campaigns. This bill will only pass through the parliament at a joint sitting following a double dissolution.

Howard knows that if he dissolves the parliament using this bill as one of the triggers, he will have the unqualified and unrestrained support of both Packer and Murdoch to an extent not experienced by any leader in recent years. This would give Howard an unassailable advantage.

Each of these bills if not passed in an amended form satisfactory to the Government can be submitted and rejected a second time prior to the parliament rising for Christmas. This leaves it open to Howard to call an election in the first half of the new year.

An election in the first half of next year will give Howard a record fourth term and extend his period in office for a further eighteen months at least. Howard’s age may excite the opposition and the media, however it will not be an issue with the electorate were he to stand for another term in those circumstances.

Howard’s present undertaking gives him until July next year to disclose his intentions and in the meantime while there may be the occasional outbreak of the type seen in the past week, Costello will not allow any disturbance on his own behalf. Crean is correct in his assessment that Costello does not have the ticker for a contest.

In spite of the rivalry between Costello and Downer, when Downer insisted on the top job and announced a spill against Hewson, Costello soon fell into line. When Howard began jockeying to topple Downer, Costello pulled his head in and did not so much as seriously count heads. He was in fact overseas for the last days of Downer’s inexorable fall from grace.

In the event that it becomes apparent in the first half of next year that a double dissolution is an option for Howard, Costello supporters will be able to do little more than stand by and watch. Short of a remarkable change in circumstances, the Coalition could be expected to win an election held at that time comfortably.

It appears that save for a modest rise in interest rates, the economy will still be a plus for the Coalition. With good luck the socialist left and their fellow travellers will still be inciting riots in the detention centres and Labor will be divided over important issues and still struggling with policies.

To imagine that Costello has “the numbers” to defeat Howard in a contest at any time including the second half of next year, is to badly misjudge Costello’s support. In spite of the fact that he is working hard to attract support from normal Howard allies such as Bob Charles types who have over the years been overlooked for promotion, his support is far short of half the party room.

Costello’s public profile as a loyal and patient Deputy has in large part been a necessary virtue. Costello simply does not have the party room support to give Howard cause for concern. He lacks the political experience and ability and more importantly, quality people capable of coalescing a substantial body of support. Costello also lacks simple people skills and does not naturally attract personal support.

There are three groups ranged against Howard; the moderates such as Vanstone and Pyne who adopted Costello when Reith, remarkably the moderates first choice, initially fell from grace; those consumed by failed ambition, and a number of the older hands who carry a well refined bitterness towards Howard.

Costello’s support is little more than a rabble in terms of discipline and direction. As long as people such as Pyne, Baird and Hockey see themselves as faction leaders, it will remain thus. Until such time as those who have been through these campaigns in the past take control of affairs, those prepared to vote for Costello in the advent of a contest will remain insignificant.

Howard on the other hand has deliberately included a number of moderates in his Ministry. It ought not be forgotten of course that of the ninety seven Liberal Members and Senators, forty three are Ministers, Secretaries or office holders. That does not suppose that all of these people will vote for Howard, however many have little to gain from a change.

With complete justification Howard knows that time is on his side and he can leave at a time exclusively of his choosing. He has nothing to fear from Costello or his supporters.

That being said, in the manner of the retirement of his great hero, Menzies, Howard wants to be seen publicly to be in compete control of his departure. His relaxed attitude in response to media questions about it is in keeping with presenting this perception.

Howard’s very obvious irritation with the wide speculation in the media last week about his departure and the report that Costello would contest the leadership if Howard does not retire in July, had nothing to do with Howard’s fear of a challenge and everything to do with his control of events being publicly threatened, albeit meaningless threats to informed observers.

Another visit to the people aside, if John Howard chooses to leave office next year, he will make every attempt to do so in a manner which reduces the risk of speculation about a forced departure.

Peter Fray

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