Beazley was our best asset. We were confident we would win, albeit with very reduced numbers, if Beazley was still leading Labor in late 2007. Our entire strategy was centred around Beazley’s lack of traction with voters. Whatever else they thought of Howard, focus groups told us he was perceived as decisive, whatever that meant. We were also cognisant of Beazley’s health problems – apparently he had a condition related to fluid leakage on his spine.
“What’s a spine?” I surreptitiously inquired of Minchin during a subsequent Cabinet meeting. He didn’t know either. Told me to Google it. Regardless, Beazley didn’t have the ticker (again, Minchin was unable to enlighten me on this term).
I believed that Howard would retire sometime after the 2007 election and thus I would get my chance to be the top dog, the head honcho, The Man, numero uno, the big cheese, the Boss. Howard had previously promised me the leadership, as discussed in chapter six. But I knew he was not being straight with me. Before the August sitting period, I called Howard in Sydney and forcefully put my case for a leadership change.
“You’re a duplicitous, lying rodent John. The public have turned on you, they’re not listening anymore to your lies and embellishments. You’re stale. A has-been. Yesterday’s hero. You should f-ck off now before I roll you publicly, Keating style!” … is what I should have said.
My recollection is that I meekly asked him when “my turn” will be. I hung up with his laughter still shrieking from the speaker phone. Glenn Milne held my hand as a gesture of comfort.
Minchin suggested I challenge Howard, but I needed to Google “challenge” and told him I’d respond later. Still, I knew the Party wanted me to step up to the plate, so show resolve [editor: please check spelling] and give the Coalition a fresh, youthful face before the next election. Spurred on by the moderates who supported me, I again engaged Howard on the leadership transition.
The fact is John, we’re done for with you as leader. You’re on the nose. A bad smell. Let me blunt Howard ––you’re a little f-cking manipulator who’s blown our economic credentials with your largess. My advice is: p-ss off now and let me run the show. I can limit the loss we may face [in 2008]. Is what I wished I’d said.
However, at the time of this confrontation with the PM, I remember my stomach became fluttery with butterflies and my legs went to jelly. So I made Mr Howard a cup of tea and noted he hadn’t invited the missus and I to dinner for several decades.
Rudd caught us by surprise. Howard maintained that once the electorate got to know Rudd, his high rating in opinion polls would level out and our support would increase sufficiently to get us over the line. There was also talk of leaking the “strip club” story to further that outcome. Glenn Milne briefed us on Rudd’s shenanigans at Scores. According to Milne, Rudd, while drunk, placed a US $20 note in a stripper’s undergarment and then foraged in her nether regions for change. Fiscal responsibility my arse!
The Scores story backfired. News of Rudd’s drunken escapade perversely served to enhance his stature. I called Milne up and asked his advice: if I visited Adam and Eve in Fyshwick and bought a couple of videos, would that boost my standing in the electorate? Glenn offered to get back to me on that.
As Howard closed the Cabinet meeting he indicated that he wanted a private word. Alone, the PM quizzed me on a report in today’s Australian that I would challenge before Rudd built momentum for the election now due within six months. The PM looked me straight in the chest and told me that “the party and the people” want him to remain and fight the next election and I should be loyal and await my turn.
“You’ll lose and destroy the Liberal party you little f-ckstick” … is what I wanted to say; instead I nodded compliantly and told Howard I had no intention of challenging and that Glenn Milne was on drugs when he wrote that story. At least I was partly truthful.
I sense strong support among my colleagues. Christopher Pyne has been urging me on — at least I presume that’s what his hand gestures indicate. Likewise George Brandis is right behind me. Brandis is a smart operator and Howard made a mistake in not elevating him sooner, no doubt because George and I are close. Brandis may appear a tad stiff to some in the party room, but he’s one of my firmest supporters and I rely heavily on him to wield his influence accordingly. Brandis had done the numbers and while I wasn’t there yet, if 37 percent of the federal Liberal party either didn’t vote or died, I would replace Howard as PM.
Downer still had his dreams, however it’s best if I don’t elaborate on them. Suffice it to say that Downer believed the AWB scandal and other misadventures had not harmed his chances or regaining the leadership of the Liberal Party. He stood loyally with Howard and would be a major obstacle to a leadership change.
Abbott’s stance was more difficult to read. He had characteristics I didn’t: a firm sense of his own worth, unshakeable convictions, people skills and a backbone. By contrast, Abbott’s mad as a cut snake and his floppy eared bug eyed insanity may not have grabbed the broader electorate’s attention in the same way it grabbed mental health workers’.
With the Kevin 07 slogan now part of the public consciousness, I knew the time to confront Howard and Downer over leadership was now. A meeting was held at a Sydney hotel during APEC where key figures would discuss their loyalty to Howard and the possibilities of installing me as leader. I can honestly admit to being nervous about the outcome. I paced up and down my Melbourne office awaiting a call regarding the outcome. I was shaking with anticipation.
Minchin called just after 3.45 to inform me the while Hockey, Turnbull and Bishop favoured change, the consensus was it was too late, and we would quite possibly go down (at the election) with Howard as skipper. Stunned, I called Howard, who had just finished another photo op with President Bush.
I called him “sir” and pledged my allegiances. I even suggested we appear on A Current Affair together to show our unity. Howard suggested Deal or No Deal.
Tomorrow: election night 2007 … do I stay or do I hang around?