Pity the poor trees that have
died to make the paper all the speculation over the Prime Minister’s
future has been printed on since Piers Akerman’s Sunday Telegraph column “Stage set for Howard exit”. It’s all guesswork. Highly educated guesswork, but guesswork nonetheless.

Only two facts are clear. John Howard is a very successful politician and Peter Costello is his natural heir.

And there may be a third. On Late Night Live
last night, I suggested that the leadership talk might have been a
deliberate drop – a distraction tactic from the Government to draw
media attention away from Kim Beazley’s Budget attack.

Today’s
Newspoll suggests that Beazley bit could well be right. No doubt the
Government’s own polling had already told them that, and so they
changed the topic.

It’s not as if the politics of the leadership
transition are all that difficult. The ANU’s Peter Brent offered a
blunt assessment of what’s involved at Mumble Politics yesterday:

Forget the culture and history wars, Howard’s battlers,
conviction politicians and all the other commentators’ fables; this
government, and its leader, have survived ten years, despite little electoral connection, because of the economy and community misgivings about Labor’s management.

And
Costello has actually been more forceful and effective than the
contained and droning Howard in thumping home – day in, day out – the
message that Labor can’t be trusted with the economy. In the
government’s early years, many Australians knew about the $10 billion
“Beazley black hole” because of Costello, and he still bangs away with
Labor’s $90 billion debt.

John Howard is a very
successful politician. Politician. Politicians care about their legacy
and how history will view them. When will he go? He gave us a hint
years ago when he said, “The times will suit me”.

If we’re going to indulge some of the speculation, it’s hard to beat Peter van Onselen’s assessment in The Australian today as a scene setter:

Howard finally believes Peter Costello won’t lose the next
election. Howard doesn’t take the voters for granted. Experience has
taught him how tough it is to win elections. That is why he doesn’t
call early elections: why fight an election if you don’t have to?

With
the 2006 budget and its largesse behind us, Howard is convinced his
party has enough political capital in the bank to win the next election…

It
doesn’t that mean the PM is ready to retire – and that the current
flurry of leadership speculation is anything other than a brief media
squall.

Peter Fray

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