The Prime Minister has obviously made the considered decision he can win the next election. The polling – and his own gut feeling – must be telling him so.

John Howard is in a remarkable position for a politician. He could retire and be a party hero forever, regardless of the outcome of the next election. This poll will be crucial for both his and Kim Beazley’s legacies, except the opposition leader hasn’t had the Paris option.

By contesting the next poll, the Prime Minister is risking his reputation. If the Liberals lose, John Howard will become the leader whose hubris took him a bridge too far.

The hypotheticals are fascinating. If Howard was to depart, he would have a special place in the Liberal pantheon. Even if the Government was to lose the next poll, his successor would be blamed for fumbling the baton. He could look forward to being the party’s living legend.

Legacy and reputation matter to Howard. His whole career has been about vindication.

Which makes one look at some of the messages of recent weeks from the Liberal Party’s federal director Brian Loughnane again. Loughnane says the redistributions in Queensland and NSW have left the Coalition with “a perilously small margin of error”.

Over the weekend he told the West Australian Liberal Party state council: “The improvement in our position achieved at the last election has been more than eliminated simply by changes to the boundaries. All that is required for a change of government is for Labor to achieve a smaller swing than it received in 1998.”

Today’s decision shows the Prime Minister clearly believes that the next election is still winnable – with him at the helm.

The PM would be aware of the danger posed by the redistribution. He would be aware of the danger posed by retiring MPs – and parliamentarians thinking out aloud about their future.

Yet he also knows that this election is about minimising losses. Uniform swings of the sort Loughnane is talking about are rare. The Government enjoys a healthy margin. What it needs is leadership, certainty and discipline. And the man who has already delivered it four election wins is in the best position to provide these attributes in the lead up to the poll.

Of course John Howard is taking an almighty risk punting his legacy. But the greater the risk the greater the victory – and the greater the glory.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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