With a host of stories on the ABC over the weekend whetting our appetites, and there being no commercial-style cross-promotion at ABC News and Current Affairs, expectations for last night’s Four Corners to deliver a few scoops about Howard’s End were high.

Having been unimpressed with certain news outlets scornful of the supposed lack of news in John Winston Howard: The Biography, I can’t be too critical. It’s always good to see the scuttlebutt that journalists use as background for their stories turn up in on-the-record interviews.

It was all a bit tame, though. Considering the bizarre events surrounding the Liberal leadership in 2006 and 2007, there was, compared say to Labor in Power, remarkably little bitterness on display last night. So much for the Liberals falling apart at the seams in opposition.

As a clearer picture of the dying days of the Howard Government emerges, a few questions suggest themselves. Just how remote are Australian prime ministers becoming from even their most senior colleagues? Nick Minchin came to the view in 2006 that Howard should step down. Minchin was a senior cabinet minister yet he never felt able to have a direct conversation with Howard about the leadership.

Would Howard have stepped down under any circumstances? Costello doesn’t think so. It was his idea for Ian McLachlan to make the famous note of their 1994 conversation with Howard. Costello also gave the green light for McLachlan to show the note to Glenn Milne in 2006. It has now become conventional wisdom that this episode caused Howard to dig in his heels and forgo any prospect of retirement in 2006. If true, it only shows that Howard would have grasped any excuse to do what was in his heart and stay at Kirribilli to the bitter end.

Another interesting tidbit was Joe Hockey’s revelation that some ministers seemed unaware that WorkChoices allowed bosses to cut workers’ pay and conditions. While this at first seems unbelievable, it does dovetail with a common complaint about ministerial workloads – that individual ministers have more than enough trouble handling their own portfolios. As a result, the quality of cabinet deliberation suffers from a lack of knowledgeable discussion of the ramifications of big decisions.

Howard’s absence from last night’s program lowered the temperature a bit. Clearly, he no longer feels obliged to indulge ABC journalists. Who will get the exclusive when Howard finally breaks his silence?

Peter Fray

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