The level of discipline shown by the Howard Government has to this point been remarkable. Apart from the dull roar of Costello supporters backgrounding journalists on the strengths of their man (for nigh on a decade, now), little dissent has been registered from within cabinet, the backbenches or the party organisation. The leaking of David Kemp’s cabinet submission on deregulation of university fees was a notable exception to cabinet unity. Wilson Tuckey’s anti-Howard verbiage has been heavily discounted by political observers.
Even the wets, who scored a few victories over the hardliners on refugee policy during Howard’s fourth term, were remarkably restrained during the Haneef and Sudanese refugee episodes. Smart politicians know that disunity is death. Is there any point, though, in keeping mum in the face of annihilation?
Howard’s supporters and enemies both believe him to be a miracle worker. Most candidates in marginal seats have stuck to their belief that Howard is their best hope. The current campaign is exposing him as just another politician. Liberal candidates are torn between polls showing the government well behind, yet Howard’s personal popularity relatively intact.
Crikey has highlighted the practice of individual Liberal candidates leaving John Howard and/or Liberal Party insignia off their campaign material. We can add the Liberal candidate in my own electorate of Fraser to this list. Such tactics seemed to work for a few Labor candidates in this years’ NSW election.
The leak outlining Malcolm Turnbull’s failed efforts to have the government ratify the Kyoto protocol is naturally being analysed in light of these facts. It is possible that the leak was strategic, allowing Turnbull to distance himself from government policy in the interests of delivering different messages to different electorates. The Turnbull campaign may or may not have had the party’s blessing in this effort. Howard seemed utterly unprepared to deal with the leak, suggesting that his office wasn’t warned.
There has also been a spike in the number of party figures criticising the government’s campaign strategy – still off the record, but nonetheless unhelpful in maintaining the image of unity. Just what Howard should be doing to improve the situation is far from clear.
Jobs will be hard to come by for Liberal staffers after an election loss with no Coalition state government to fall back on. There isn’t a lot of incentive in staying loyal to a doomed campaign strategy. The Liberal Party preaches the worth of the individual. It seems that some party members have taken the message to heart.