John Howard should now realise he cannot get away
forever with not answering questions about how long he intends to remain in
politics. The time for a decision is fast approaching.

For him to lead the Coalition at another election is
clearly what the colleagues want. They follow the adage that the first duty of a
politician is to be elected and the second duty is to be re-elected. Howard is
the proven winner judged most likely to allow duty to flower.

But for that to happen on the next polling day voters
must be sure they are actually voting for John Howard – that he is capable of
being in the job for the full three years of another term. A suggestion that
they are voting for a lame duck Prime Minister who quickly will hand over to
someone else would be a serious negative.

The reactions of Howard this week suggest he is of a
mind to run again. That being so he must repeat the effort of last time and
convince the electorate that he is quite capable of going on for many years yet.
The morning track suited appearances have to continue. They are a daily
indication of a man whose ageing is no impediment. Perhaps Glenn Milne should be
given a dossier on world leaders who continued to rule successfully well in to
their seventies. If Howard stays Glenn will be looking for a way of replacing
Peter Costello as an informant of influence.

Certainly any statement announcing that there will be no
immediate retirement should stress that the Prime Ministerial health is
excellent, the mind is active and the enthusiasm for making
Australia a better place remains. The mantra of remaining for as
long as the party wants him and it is in the best interests of the party to do
so should have the addition that there is the hope that both conditions will
remain for many, many years to come.

A good adviser should not be a sycophant who tells the
boss what he wants to hear. There is a duty on this occasion to say that there
are real risks in staying on. The greatest is that he might lose the next
election. The people might decide they cannot believe the word of a liar about
staying on. Industrial relations changes have given Labor an issue that is
potentially a substantial vote winner. The opinion polls show that.

Only Howard himself can make the judgment about whether
the risk of ending a career in defeat is worth taking.

If the decision is to go with the record intact, the
question is when and how to do so. In the last few days Howard has shown the
natural resentment of a man accused of being a liar. These feelings must be put
aside. The circumstances create an opportunity to show real leadership by
putting aside personal hurt in the best interests of the country. Become the big
man and announce with considerable dignity that you will be stepping down on
such and such a date when the party can exercise its right to choose a
successor. Reinforce that generosity of spirit by saying that while the choice is
the party’s and not yours, Peter Costello, through all the ups and downs,
has proven himself to be a deserving Prime Minister.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey