At some point in most long-running political dramas, the media coverage
itself becomes an important issue – sometimes the most important.
Watergate is probably remembered more for Woodward and Bernstein than
for Haldeman and Ehrlichman. Glenn Milne may never join that company,
but this week’s Howard/Costello stand-off is an interesting case of how
media commentary seems to take on a life of its own.

The dominant theme in the media, both yesterday and today, is that
“something has to happen” – that things cannot continue the way they
are, and that unless Howard announces his retirement in about the next
six months, either he or Costello will force some sort of a showdown.
But while this cannot of course be ruled out, there is really no
evidence for it.

The last time Costello indulged his frustrations, in June 2003, things
fairly quickly settled back into the old pattern. Since nothing has
really changed – except that Howard is three years older, which seems to carry very little weight given
his state of health – the likelihood
has always been that the same would apply this time. Costello’s best
chance of becoming prime minister (quite possibly his only chance) is
if Howard retires peacefully, and therefore the sensible strategy is to
wait patiently for this to happen.

So why do so many commentators downplay the chances of that outcome?
Partly, no doubt, because some of them have their own agendas, and hope
that they can promote a preferred outcome by talking it up. But more
important is the simple fact that continuing the status quo is not very
exciting, and excitement is what sells newspapers. The message “that’s
it folks, nothing much else is going to happen” is unlikely to
encourage readers or listeners to tune in to the next day’s episode.

Many in the media had obviously convinced themselves that Howard would
not be leading his party to the next election. I don’t like to
criticise them for that, since I had the same conviction in 2003. But
Howard’s position is actually stronger now than it was then: he has an
extra 2% electoral margin, and he is facing Kim Beazley, whom he has
already beaten twice. He is probably still attracted by the idea of a
smooth transition, but if he can put it off for a further three years
then I expect he will.

That’s what the punters have concluded, anyway. As Bryan Palmer at Ozpolitics
reports this morning, Centrebet once again has odds on who will lead
the Liberal Party to the next election. Howard is overwhelmingly
favourite at 3-1 on, Costello is 4-1 against, Nelson not far behind at
13-2, and the rest well back: Turnbull 25-1, Abbott 33-1, and Alexander
Downer the value bet at 100-1.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey