Some observers have made the comparison between today’s Liberal leadership woes and Labor’s in 1983, when Bill Hayden was shoulder-tapped by John Button to make way for Bob Hawke.
But this doesn’t stack up. For one thing, Labor was in opposition in 1983, while the Coalition is in government today. That gives a different dynamic. As well, Hawke was a hugely popular figure, and many Australians wanted him to lead his party. The same can’t be said of Peter Costello today.
But most starkly, the ALP was ahead in the polls at the time, which was why Hayden could famously quip that, given the state of the economy (poor) and the opinion polls (good for Labor) a drover’s dog could win for the party. The government today, in case you missed it, is a mile or several behind, and while Howard can boast of a good economy, the drover’s dog line wouldn’t quite work.
It looks like the partyroom has chickened out, but flicking to a Costello leadership would have been worth a try.
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It has dawned on many commentators that Howard’s political prowess was always oversold. His longevity has not been due “culture wars”, “conviction politics”, or his allegedly brilliant communication skills – as fun as those things are to weave into newspaper columns. It has been firmly based in the roaring economy and rocketing house prices, ever-growing numbers of four-wheel drives and McMansion renovations.
The necessary flipside has been misgivings about Labor’s economic management ability. Concepts like “paying off Labor’s debt” and record interest rates, crucial to the story, have been Costello’s domain; for eleven years he has bellowed day after day, in and outside parliament, that Labor can’t be trusted.
If Costello became PM he would hit the television interview circuit, revealing himself as personable and witty – perhaps reprising the Macarana. Tanya would be on the glossy magazine stands, and we would learn what a funster Peter is with the family, how he loves his footy and so on. (Some call this the honeymoon.)
And while enjoying the spotlight, he could keep reminding everyone of how terrible Labor was with the economy – and people might just listen, in a way they don’t with the contained, droning Howard.
Ok, the government is very likely to go down either way, but if the Libs make the switch, they at least won’t die wondering.