Peter van Onselen and Philip Senior’s Howard’s End provides a detailed explanation of why the Howard Government should have been comfortably re-elected last November.

This is a book for the partisans — the story of how a competent, high-quality government blundered its way to defeat at the hands of an opponent lacking in substance but rich in political savvy, and a media anxious for change.

Van Onselen and Senior evidently lack the sort of in-depth access to the Liberal leadership obtained by Christine Jackman from Labor’s campaign team for Inside Kevin 07, which at least provided a glimpse into the heat of electoral battle, if not any profound analysis, and the book occasionally feels like a collection of press clips. There are some curious absences, too — Rudd’s slip-up on tax rates is cited, but not Howard’s more harmful A Current Affair senior moment on interest rates, nor the revealing problems the Coalition had with working out what campaign slogan to stick with once “Go For Growth” became an ongoing reminder of interest rates.

In essence, Van Onselen and Senior think Howard was dudded — by the press, by his colleagues, and not least of all by his own failing political judgement, which like the proverbial frog in the saucepan left him unaware until too late that he should have gotten out much earlier.

The media come in for repeated criticism — for being lazy, for getting on the grog when Howard wanted to convey his feelings about the death of a soldier, for helping Kevin Rudd because he used to be on Sunrise, for claiming Rudd won the debate because they were angry about the lack of chartered aircraft, and, in the case of the ABC, for being systematically anti-Coalition.

The Australian’s blatant bias toward the Government — despite editorialising for Rudd at the last moment to curry favour with the party by then assured of victory — goes virtually unremarked.

But cranky p-sshead journos have got nothing on Howard’s own cabinet colleagues. In recounting the events surrounding Howard’s offer, later withdrawn, to stand aside, Van Onselen and Senior do manage to effectively convey the absurd and comical cowardice of grown men and women, supposedly top political operators, who are unable to carry out the simplest of political executions even when their failing leader loads the gun and hands it to them.

However, what’s missing — peculiarly given Van Onselen is a recent biographer of Howard — is an effective insight into what remains the most significant miscalculation by a leading Australian politician for a generation or more, one that cost him his own seat and his party government.

Van Onselen and Senior neglect what the 1980s told us about John Howard, that he was prepared to go to any lengths, including damaging his own party, in order to lead it and that he was prepared to use the leadership to pursue what ended up being one of the few permanent goals of his political career — suppressing the moderate wing of the Liberal party.

Howard understood that the Liberals’ supposed great asset — its union of liberals and conservatives — was also a significant weakness in the absence of both a Labor-style internal power-sharing structure and a strong leader. Howard’s success in keeping party moderates underfoot risked being undone if he’d made way for Costello, who even if not progressive himself, would have stoked hopes of a moderate resurgence within the party, but lacked the authority to quash them.

Van Onselen and Senior also fail to make the connection that it was policy as much as political miscalculation that accounted for the end of the Howard Government. Like, one suspects, many current Liberal MPs, they see in the Government’s policies essentially sound goals, marred perhaps by implementation problems, or a well-funded campaign of opposition.

They don’t understand what the majority of Australian voters came to believe — that WorkChoices meant unskilled workers relied on the goodwill of their employers to get a fair go, that Howard preferred to tax and spend for political benefit rather than invest the proceeds of the mining boom, thereby driving up interest rates, that the NT intervention was essentially political in nature, or that Australia’s foreign policy had become too closely associated with the views of one section of one US political party.

These were not presentational difficulties, or the consequences of union-funded ad campaigns, or merely symbolic — they were the fundamental components of the Coalition agenda.

Despite this and Jackman’s book, no one has yet really explained what happened in 2007, what occurred in the collective mind of the electorate to embrace Kevin Rudd. One suspects that John Howard, like Paul Keating before him, lost touch with the Australia he played such a fundamental role in creating during his time in power.

But in 1996 the nation turned to a long-established political figure, a known quantity. In 2007, we bought a relative unknown from Queensland. It’s still not clear what we’ve ended up with.

Peter Fray

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