Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the news, that dreaded myopic dumpling face is there again, louring at you from the screen as if nothing had changed since, well, about 1978.

I blame the voters; they may have thought they were getting rid of John Howard last year, but no-one remembered to load the gun with a silver bullet, let alone bury the body at the crossroads with a stake through his heart — although, of course, there may not have been one.

In any case, his spectre is again stalking the media, taking advantage of the fact that it’s the silly season and the real prime minister is on holiday. Put garlic by the doorway and bring out the bell, book and candle: the undead has returned.

Of course, much of it has been relatively harmless fun. Take, for instance, George W Bush in the last spasm of political death-throes awarding his little deputy sheriff yet another glittering bauble, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As its name implies, this trinket belongs exclusively to the president in power; no-one else has any say in the choice, so it should be taken as a mark of personal political payback rather than of any worthwhile achievement.

It was not always thus; when Harry Truman inaugurated it, the medal was intended as a way of recognising foreign (i.e. non-American) war heroes. But then it was debased, at least in the eyes of the original recipients, by John Kennedy, who broadened the scope to include anyone who had contributed to the security or national interests of the United States, or to world peace, or for significant public or private achievement. In other words, for just about anything. This led to such disparate types as Mother Teresa and Doris Day sporting the handsome accessory, and now our own Johnny is about to join them.

He obviously thinks it very big deal, especially as he was asked to come to Blair House as a guest of the Bushes (presumably their last) in Blair House. Unfortunately the incoming Barack Obama had planned to move his family in at the same time, but what the heck. As he himself has emphasised, America only has one president at a time, and if Bush ranks Howard above himself, there’s nothing he can do about it.

However Bush’s priorities did cause a bit of a stir among the commentariat; an American opined that Howard might actually be seeking political asylum from Australian voters while an Australian suggested that the Howards should abandon the 119 rooms of Blair House for a cell at Guantanamo Bay, so our Man of Steel could see first hand the system he has been defending for all these years. At the time of writing, this idea has not been taken up. Pity.

But the excitement of the forthcoming junket has obviously reinvigorated the wizened veteran, to the extent that he has now resumed his self-appointed role of elder statesman and friend, mentor and guide to his beleaguered successors. This is not the first time, of course; not long ago he was warning Kevin Rudd of the danger of deficits and the long term consequences of going down that seductive path. There at least he was speaking from experience; as treasurer under Malcolm Fraser John Howard became something of a deficit specialist, not that you would have guessed from what he said as Prime Minister.

But that’s all in the past; we must move on. And in doing so, Little Johnny has come up with a proposal so bizarre it is hard to believe it is not simple mischief-making. He has advised the maverick National Party senator, Barnaby Joyce, to find a way to move into the House of Representatives, and then to take a senior role on the coalition front bench.

This can only be seen as code for knocking off his party’s present leader, the unimpressive Warren Truss, and setting himself up to be deputy prime minister in the still unlikely event of a change of government. Indeed, there is every reason to suppose that the move would make a change of government even more unlikely, because Joyce is not just a loose cannon within his own party; he is a super-National who believes that the city slickers of the Liberal Party are to be treated with suspicion and kept at a distance, and that Malcolm Turnbull, as the slickest of all of them, is to be given the widest berth of all.

In the last few months Joyce has publicly disagreed with Turnbull about Iraq, industrial relations, the Murray Darling, the government economic stimulus package, the infrastructure fund, the national schools curriculum and tax breaks for carbon sink plantations. Privately, he thinks Turnbull is wrong about just about everything else as well. The two of them can hardly bear to work in the same building. The idea that they could somehow convince the electorate they could work together as leaders of a united coalition is too fanciful for the rational mind to contemplate. And John Howard is the leader who, in office, placed such emphasis on the importance of maintaining unity within the coalition, who went around mouthing slogans like “disunity is death.” Yet here he is advocating his own party’s sworn enemy as the man to work with his Liberal heir.

Admittedly Howard never liked Turnbull all that much either; could there, just possibly, be an element of malice and sabotage going on here? Surely not from Honest John. And of course there is nothing in the reports that Turnbull has been seen searching a street map of Wollstonecraft for a deserted crossroads, or that he has been seen late at night in his office sharpening up a wooden stake.

After all, opposition members don’t take John Howard seriously these days. Well, do they?

Peter Fray

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