Will John Howard just walk away? Will the polls drive him to retirement? Who knows, but ever-eager to help, we asked a range of spinners and PR operatives to advise the PM on the best means to an end: his dignified departure from office.

Telling it like it is
Mike Smith, director of Inside Public Relations, writes:

The best spin would be NO spin.

Here is his speech:

“I have always maintained that I would remain leader of the Parliamentary Liberal Party as long as it was in the best interests of the country and as long as the party wanted me to lead.

“In recent weeks, I came to the view that the Government under my leadership had suffered a loss of support that may prove fatal at the election due within months. This loss of support did not seem related to the policies of the Government – which remain sound – but to the notion that my time as leader was up.

“Clearly, I do not believe a defeat of the coalition at the election is in the best interests of the country. I sounded out my colleagues and asked for brutal and frank advice. They gave me such advice, but left the final decision in my hands.

“Accordingly, I have decided today to step down from the leadership of the Parliamentary Liberal Party and vacate my seat of Bennelong at the forthcoming election. I have done so because I do not believe it is in the best interests of the country for a Labor Government to be elected. I came to the conclusion that the coalition had a much better chance of being re-elected with a new leader, one with a long-term commitment to the people of Australia.

“Next Tuesday, the Parliamentary Party will meet to select a new leader. As I have said on many occasions, the party has a ready-made replacement in Peter Costello.

“I thank my colleagues for their support during an exhilarating parliamentary career, particularly the last 11 as Prime Minister. I am proud of the achievements of our Government. Thanks to the outstanding work of successive coalition teams, I leave this role with the nation in much better shape than in which we found it. I would like to thank my family and the Australian people for helping to make Australia better.

“I am confident that this change will re-energise the Australian community’s support for a government that has delivered sustained prosperity, high employment, low inflation and international competitiveness – the cornerstones of our Australian way of life.

“My time may be up, but now is not the time to put our nation at risk by voting against a Government that has delivered everything it promised – and more.”

“He can’t be seen to flee”
Adam Kilgour, Executive Chairman of Corporate Public Relations, writes:

How does Howard get out with dignity? He says Lazarus needs to go in for a triple bypass.

But seriously his only way out is to concoct a respectful, for the good of the party and the nation, handover.

Howard has always maintained he will “serve” as leader of the Liberal Party whilst his party wants him. He would have to present a scenario where he has approached a group of senior parliamentary leaders and trusted advisers, acknowledging it’s in the best interests of the Coalition Government that they conscript a new leader to give it a kick and new momentum in the campaign. The Crosby/Textor research has shaken him and made him realise change is required.

Peter Costello and Malcolm Turnbull, the two obvious successors, are not exactly unknown to the electorate. Similar to Bob Hawke when he replaced Bill Hayden in 1982. Howard is passing the job to a strong team of successors. Either would generate new momentum for the Coalition campaign.

He cannot resign from the Parliament and must contest Bennelong. He can’t be seen to flee. He still wants to serve, if even in a diminished capacity.

The discourses with the electorate starts with a strategic leak that Howard is considering the selfless plan. The story will unfold completely over a 24 hour news cycle.

Unconcerned about his place in history he is willing to make the sacrifice for the good of the party. Allies and enemies try to talk him out of it. Close advisers background on the wrenching considerations, describing emotional scenes, finally agreeing with the PM’s selfless plan. Talk of tears in the party room etc. Reluctantly and circumspect, he passes the baton and praises the successor.

The World Leader’s Club hails Howard in the post APEC glow as one of the greats of all time. Peter or Malcolm announce it will be an early 2008 election before the dash into the hail of bullets that is the election campaign. A new, united Coalition, moves on and speaks of the matter no more. Re-elected after the campaign, the Liberal Party honors its greatest leader since Menzies.

And then Brian Loughnane wakes up, disappointed it was only a dream.

All the way with LBJ
Christian Kerr writes:

John Howard is a wiley pol, and if he and his advisers are looking for a form of words that will let him bow out before the election, then they should take a leaf out of the book of one of the wiliest pols of all time – LBJ.

It’s impossible to beat his “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President” address to the nation from 1968 if you want to skip a victory you can’t win.

LBJ got the top job in extraordinary circumstances – and left it against a similar backdrop. That let him absolutely get away with the move.

But there’s a lot that the PM could borrow from Johnson – the stuff about how “Through all time to come, I think America will be a stronger nation, a more just society, and a land of greater opportunity and fulfilment because of what we have all done together in these years of unparalleled achievement.”

And the PM can hope for another echo of Johnson’s departure – that one of the main people who forced his hand will get shot.

Making a Graceful Gesture
Richard Farmer writes:

The great reward from being Prime Minister of this great country is the knowledge that your efforts are helping to make it an ever more prosperous and pleasant place to live. For 11 years I have had the satisfaction that comes from building a strong and secure nation – a strength and security that I wish to be preserved and built upon. But as we approach the coming election I sense that many Australians believe it is time for a change – a time when the task of government should be directed by a different and younger man. In making way today for Peter Costello I am acknowledging that desire for change and enabling it to occur in a way that does not carry with it the terrible risks that would follow from a Labor Government.  

Time for Honest John
Suzie Howie, of Howie Taylor Publicity, writes:

No amount of spin will disguise the fact that the PM is stepping down to avoid a disaster at the polls.

But he can preserve the integrity of the Coalition and restore his Honest John image if he announces that, as he has maintained, steadfastly and often over the last five years, that he is resigning because the Party believes it stands a better chance with a new Leader.

Honesty, even in politics, can sometimes be the best policy.  

And now for the vision thing
An anonymous TV network publicist writes: 

As the sun sets over the Harbour Bridge, Janette and John Howard stand hand in hand facing the gathered media, some of whom are broadcasting live. On the other side of Howard and Janette is Tony Abbott.

Howard says:

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us here this evening at such short notice. I have always had the interest in each and every Australian closest to my heart. As I’ve moved around the country for the last couple of weeks, it has become apparent that the time is perfect for me to step down from the Prime Ministership of this most wonderful country. I met with the Governor General first thing this morning and the Cabinet shortly after. And it is a great deal of pride that I present Tony Abbott, your next Prime Minister. ”

As Abbott steps into the shot with Mr and Mrs Howard, Mrs Howard gently exits the frame. With Sydney Harbour Bridge firmly in the background, the retiring PM and PM-elect share their first press conference. They will not move from this position until they have answered each and every question. At the end champagne is served, and Abbott toasts Janette, John and Australia.