John Winston Howard has a thing or two on his mind at the moment, quite apart from being Prime Minister of Australia.

He is fighting not one, but many battles.

For a start, his government goes into the official campaign trailing badly in the polls, but this is an inconvenience more than anything. As veteran pollster Irving Saulwick cautioned so wisely last week, polls are a snapshot of a given moment, rather than predictive. The Labor lead, although impressive, may be softer than we think.

Then there is the case of his own seat of Bennelong. My own view is that his government has a better chance of surviving than he does in Bennelong.

The man hoping to do a Menzies (retiring at his own time and choosing) might yet do a Bruce (the only PM to lose his seat – in 1929). But Bruce’s government went down with him.

Then there is the Liberal Party which has become over the past decade a mere appendage of Howard: will it survive a loss that will see it out of government everywhere in the land? History suggests it might be in trouble, the conservatives having a long record of trashing their own parties after election losses, as in 1929 (Nationalists) and 1942 (United Australia Party).

The turmoil in 1972 saw conservatives and trendies vie for the party’s soul (for want of a better word), and in 1983 it was a stoush between the wets and dries, the party just hanging together, but it had state governments to sustain it. It is often overlooked that the very raison d’etre of the Liberal Party, as with its conservative predecessors, is to keep Labor out of office.

Finally, there is his place in history. The Liberals don’t like losers: Bill McMahon (loser in 1972) is seldom mentioned and Malcolm Fraser (1983) is openly derided. What fate John Howard (2007)?

Peter Fray

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