Some still try to paint John Howard as a “conviction” politician, but what it really boils down to for him, like most politicians, is the conviction that the country is better off with him in office. Anything else can be sacrificed in order for that state of affairs to continue.

Hence today’s backflip on IR. Just weeks ago Howard was insistent that there would be no backdown on the main thrust of WorkChoices, that at most there would be tinkering at the edges. Instead, one of the major planks of the scheme is to be abandoned.

We’ve been here before, of course. In 2001, facing electoral disaster, Howard backflipped on the GST reporting regime – and, for good measure, on petrol excise and the takeover of Woodside Petroleum. Backflip was followed by re-election. Will it happen again?

Bryan Palmer at OzPolitics graphs the movement in the opinion polls for this year as against 2001 and 2004. On Tuesday he suggested, somewhat tongue in cheek, that the last couple of polls could be the start of a trend that would put the Coalition ahead by the end of the year. Today’s decision will make the comparison with 2001 even more vivid.

Nothing is impossible, but even without debating the merits of the IR changes there are two reasons to question the aptness of the 2001 analogy.

One is the lingering, unanswerable question from 2001: would the Coalition recovery that began in March have delivered victory to the government on its own? Or was Tampa (or perhaps the Tampa/11 September combination) a genuine deus ex machina that saved it from defeat?

For what it’s worth, I’m of the latter view. The nice gentle gradient on the pre-Tampa graph is beguiling, but I just can’t believe that the huge dip that followed was washed out completely in the campaign. Given how close the election ultimately was, I think Labor would have limped across the line without that external shock.

The other problem is in the timing. In 2001, Howard backflipped in March; this year, he waited until May. If you believe the graphs, then timing is everything: backflips need time to work, they don’t change opinion overnight. But the government starts further behind than it was in 2001, so having less time to catch up could be fatal.

AJP Taylor famously said that Hitler started World War II “through launching on 29 August [1939] a diplomatic manoeuvre which he ought to have launched on 28 August.” One day probably wouldn’t have made a difference this year, but two months just might.

Peter Fray

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