The handful of observers who
still thought they might be writing a Howard retirement story this year
will be disappointed: the opportunity to draw a line under Howard’s
record and assess his legacy has been postponed yet again. Although, on
anyone’s account, the larger part of his prime ministership is over, it
would be foolish to guess now what history will say about it. That
verdict, by Howard’s own choice, will now be hostage to next year’s
federal election.

Robert Menzies retired at the age of 71 (four
years older than Howard is now) after more than 16 years in power; in
doing so he acquired a mythic status that time has barely dented. But
just a few years earlier, in 1961, he had run perilously close to
defeat. If he had lost then to Arthur Calwell’s Labor Party, his
reputation would be very different. The Liberal Party does not like
losers: 12 years in office would not have made up for the eventual
defeat.

The other long-serving Liberal prime minister, Malcolm
Fraser, had an electoral record for a time that was much more
impressive than Howard’s. He won three elections running, two of them
landslides, and even the third more comfortable than Howard’s in 1998.
But he stayed too long, and lost the 1983 election to Bob Hawke. No-one
would pretend that is the only reason he is now treated as an outcast
in the Liberal Party, but it is certainly the starting point: a Fraser
who had retired undefeated would be a different person.

It may
be cruel, but history judges all of us with hindsight. Our decisions
are assessed not by how they looked to us at the time, but how they
turned out. The difference between success and failure may be pure luck
– a handful of votes in a couple of marginal seats – but reputations
are made or broken accordingly.

That, fundamentally, is why
Howard is staying on: he thinks his reputation is safe, because he is
confident he can beat Kim Beazley for a third time. At the moment, the
odds look to be in his favour. But Labor is not uncompetitive in the
polls, Iraq and IR are liabilities that may loom large next year, and
Howard is taking a risk. He took the same risk three years ago and,
despite some worrying moments in the early Latham period, it paid off
handsomely.

If it does so again, Howard will be a hero. If not, his earlier successes will be quickly forgotten.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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