The 1980s provides some instructive lessons about John Howard’s attitude toward power, lessons that senior Liberals would have done well to recall before Alexander Downer’s little Show-and-Tell meeting last week.
For all his talk about being leader as long as his party wants him to be, Howard has always been obsessed with power. This is a man so determined to secure the leadership of his party that he happily wrecked its electoral prospects in order to undermine the leadership of Andrew Peacock. Even after Peacock replaced him in 1989 and Howard scoffed at ever returning to the leadership, he continued to destabilise his party, angry that his own leadership had been cruelled by the Joh For PM nonsense.
Since becoming Prime Minister, Howard has jettisoned any principle that may have threatened his hold on power. Small government? Got in the way of bribing the electorate with its own money. His hatred of Medicare? The punters like it too much. States rights? Not when there’s pork-barrelling to be done. His dislike of Asian immigration? Well, business wants more foreign workers. The claim that Howard is a conviction politician, made by both his left-wing loathers and sillier reactionaries like Janet Albrechtsen, doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. For Howard, there has never been any contest between power and conviction.
Given that, can anyone seriously believe this man would willingly relinquish the Prime Ministership? Howard has been through more leadership ballots than the rest of his party put together, and against far more experienced opponents. He has sacrificed virtually every belief in order to cling to power, and he has readily trashed his party’s electoral fortunes before. So why on earth would he blink when faced with some poor polls and the gormless crew that make up his current Cabinet?
Nor do the lessons of the 1980s stop with Howard.
After he foolishly gambled and lost the Liberal leadership trying to remove his disloyal deputy in 1985, Andrew Peacock was asked if still wanted to be Prime Minister. “I’m not sure I ever did,” he quipped. It was a silly, throwaway line, but somehow it stuck, confirming that Peacock was a dilettante, a man who had been handed everything and wasn’t prepared to fight for power.
A similar fate now appears certain for Peter Costello, who like Peacock has been given a sleigh ride through public life by the Victorian Liberal Party. After the events of the last fortnight, you have to wonder what it would take to make Costello fight for the leadership. His empty threats to copy Keating and go to the backbench could be laughed off as the drunk talk when the Coalition was ahead in the polls. But to do nothing while Howard leads his party to the verge of a slaughter shows outright cowardice.
No wonder Howard has treated him with contempt for a decade. He’s Andrew Peacock without the tan.