Leadership speculation and now a bad Newspoll has all the pundits wondering where John Howard can find some traction. Hillary Bray reports on the current debate and some surprising comments from Peter Costello on football louts.

“Where’s the wedge?”, the Howard watchers cry as the PM looks for traction, Iron Mark continues to ride high in the polls and the election draws closer.

Will the Free Trade Agreement with the United States work? Unlikely. Iron Mark, for all his free market sympathies, is less easily knocked out of step with his party than it’s two original targets, Kim Beazley and Simon Crean. Free trade scarcely appeals either to the One Nation types and threatened blue collar workers the PM won to his side in 2001.

Then there was his interpretation of what sparked off the Redfern riots – “A policy of perhaps treating different groups in the community differently” – and his solution – “Treating everybody equally and as part of the mainstream.”

Was that something floated just long enough for Tex to get out there with a poll and take the temperature of the electorate? Or was it only run briefly to give a sop to the rednecks without offending too many of those more refined types who took exception to the Government’s constant banging on about Wik in 1998, all those fellow North Shore Liberals who walked across the Bridge for reconciliation?

Australians prefer not to think too long about Indigenous issue – it’s just too unpleasant. It’s not in the Prime Minister’s interest to remind them.

So, where is the wedge?

The PM was on firmer ground when he told John Laws how he intended to win a fourth term in office.

Firstly, he warned that if Labor wins the election the party will be in control of every federal, state and territory government in Australia and there will be no checks and balances.

Good basic stuff and nothing to sneer at. Expect to hear a lot more on this theme.

He then singled out Iron Mark’s pledge at the Labor National Conference to roll back IR reform.

Winning the next election, he said, “will be tough and I always said it will be tough. But as time goes by people will understand that there is a choice and that the prosperity of the last eight years has not been accidental and that a Latham Labor government would threaten that, particularly in the area of industrial relations.”

More good basic stuff. Iron Mark’s pledge may have softened the attitudes of the antediluvian bruvvers towards his bolder plans – but while we don’t know just how bold (or broad) they actually are, his good internal politics leave him open to a broader scare campaign.

Howard rounded off by stitching the two together and saying he would be reminding voters of the 17 per cent interest rates under Labor and pointing out that with complete Labor reign the unions would be running the nation.

Not bad. But not a wedge.

Does this mean that the Wedgemeister isn’t going to run a wedge campaign?

Unlikely – but it could mean that in the absence of a Tampa or another Osama bin Laden special, the Prime Minister is going to remain above the fray.

There’s been very little attention paid to the appointment of Gerry Wheeler – the former Bronweenie who coined the 1996 “For all of us slogan” to the Liberal Party’s taxpayer funded campaign unit, the Government Members Secretariat.

The GMS creates the shells of all the direct mail, newsletter and other campaign material that serving MPs and Senators then use their taxpayer funded stationery, printing and postage allowances to dump on our doorsteps.

Wheeler is a junior wedgemeister from way back. He’ll be able to direct a micro wedge campaign through the literature supposedly emanating from individual members – while the PM can appear statesmanlike and above it all. After all, why else do you think that such a dedicated monarchist has reduced the Governor General to a cipher and assumed a virtually presidential role? The Wedgemeister now wants to be the father of the nation, a unifying figure.

It’s not bad – if the punters accept him in the role and don’t just think he’s a silly old f*rt staying on past his use-by date and think he actually has a vision to embody.
It does, however, have its risks.

The first is that issue of acceptance – and that’s not looking all too certain at the moment. Still, as the PM said yesterday, the election won’t be called until the second half of the year. There’s still time to turn things around.

Bob Hawke played a similar role very well at one stage – then started forgetting his lines and putting in some poor performances. The understudy was soon the star.

And that could happen to Howard.

By putting himself above the day to day politics, above the dirty work, he hands more of the load over to his ministers. They have a chance to shine, to strut the stage. They become the centre of attention, increasing focus on their ambitions and on the leadership – not just Peter Costello’s designs on the leadership but Tony Abbott’s and Brendan Nelson’s.

Not only does that tightens the focus on the succession – something Howard and the Government neither wants nor needs.

It could push the lead contender, Costello, to move while he’s still clearly in front.

Howard needs Costello for his strategy to succeed – but does Costello need him?

Perhaps the PM better hope bin Laden’s got something big planned.

COZZIE’S RUNNING!

Remember last year, when the Prime Minister declared he would be going on and on and on, how his frustrated Treasurer said he would be “speaking more widely” on issues outside his portfolio?

We haven’t seen much of it – but boy was there an exciting example yesterday.

The PM appeared on John Laws in the morning, and was asked about the great issues of day – like rugby league.

“I feel sorry for the thousands, hundreds of thousands of fans, and people involved in it who can see their game being gutted,” he said.

Not Costello – and it wasn’t just the Essendon fan speaking.

The Treasurer attacked the league over what he said was a cone of silence surrounding allegations of sexual assault at the launch of a campaign targeting violence against women. But he was talking about more than just football.

“When a complaint is made about violence, it should not be the subject of a cone of silence in the club or amongst those who may have information,” Costello said.

“It should be the subject of cooperation so that those of goodwill who don’t want to see it repeated share their information.

“When a complaint is made it should not be the subject of jokes, it should be the subject of horror because all of us have a responsibility to expose such violence as part of a campaign to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

And there was more.

Later, he went on to say, “Footballers need camaraderie to play football but that camaraderie doesn’t extend to covering up crimes. And whatever football club it is, you’ve got no obligation to cover up a crime, in fact you’ve got an obligation to cooperate with law enforcement.”

He criticised Australian rugby league captain Darren Lockyer for his levity about the allegations at a football do last week.

“If somebody has come forward with these allegations they should be treated with dignity and respect and their complaints investigated,” Costello said.

“It’s not a subject for jokes at football nights or anything like that, these are very serious allegations.”

Not only did he take a very different stance to the Prime Minister – and a more emphatic stand.

Interestingly, it sounded as if he was taking bold strides into the sort of “values” territory recently occupied by a Mr Latham. The ground the PM doesn’t seem to have been able to fight on.

A challenge is on. It mightn’t be overt, but it’s happening.

PS The PM seems to think something’s happening, too. He was busy with media engagements yesterday morning – Laws, the Today show – and had already given a major interview for the News Limited rags. All on a sitting day, too. No doubt he can always find time in his diary to go all assertive.

Peter Fray

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