They’re at it again. This time it’s John Howard with a book to sell, and doing so by playing up his long-running feud with Peter Costello. Although the particular rights and wrongs of that feud no longer have much intrinsic interest (if they ever did), they can still tell us something interesting about how political power works in Australia — something that might turn out to be useful for the future leadership of the Liberal Party.

I haven’t read the Howard book (and have no immediate intention to), so my comments are based on the public discussion of the last few days. It’s possible of course that there’s some new revelation in it which hasn’t been mentioned so far that would change our assessment of the Howard government, but based on both Howard’s character and the nature of political memoirs in general, I’d say that’s unlikely in the extreme.

Most of the discussion comes back to the question of why no-one moved against Howard when his government was obviously heading for the rocks. To me this is pretty obvious. Costello never challenged because at first he was relying on a peaceful handover from Howard, and by the time that prospect disappeared it was too late to avoid the inevitable defeat. And as Costello’s subsequent renunciation of the leadership showed, he never really had the stomach for a major fight.

Only in late 2007 were the numbers there to potentially move against Howard, and even then it didn’t happen. I described this at the time as a “failure of collective decision making.” Change would have been in the party’s interest, but not in the interest of any of the key individuals who actually made the decision: “whatever happens, the most likely outcome is defeat, therefore it’s better that it should happen to someone else.”

But the most interesting question in this is why Howard fought so doggedly to stay on. Surely the impending loss was obvious by the middle of 2007, as was the risk that he would lose his own seat. Why not preserve some of his legacy by quitting, putting the blame onto Costello and reserving for himself the argument that he would have been able to win if he’d stayed?

Peter Brent suggested rather mischievously on Friday that Howard “took a bullet for all of us” — that if Costello or some other leader had lost the election commentators would still be in the grip of the Howard myth and the Liberal Party “would find it hard to move on, be forever trying to regain the Howard years.”

I’m not sure you can really say the Liberal Party has “moved on” as it is, but Brent is probably right to say that an undefeated Howard would have made things harder. But what he doesn’t explain is why Howard, a man who understood a lot about politics, couldn’t foresee that outcome and realise that retirement was in his own interest. Granted that he had no particular interest in the party’s welfare (litres of pundit ink to the contrary notwithstanding), surely he at least cared about his own reputation?

AJP Taylor once said that “most great men of the past were only there for the beer — the wealth, prestige and grandeur that went with power.” I think we sometimes fail to realise how much this is still true today. Howard really enjoyed being prime minister: not for what he achieved, or for his historical legacy, but simply for the everyday pleasures of the job. The nice house and office and car, the service of a loyal staff, the adulation of cheering crowds and foreign dignitaries, even just the escape from suburban domesticity.

These things became so important to Howard that the thought of giving them up, even if only a few months earlier than he had to, was too much to bear. (Costello, who achieved political fame early in life, probably didn’t see it the same way.) Moreover, the very insulation of high office contributed to the thought that maybe he really was the magician who could forestall the inevitable — and that illusion did help to keep the Liberal Party together through dangerous times.

And perhaps Howard was also a prisoner of his own success. Maybe at some level he just assumed that the party would take the initiative and throw him out, which would have best enabled him to maintain the legend: he underestimated the extent to which he had deprived it of any initiative and converted it into an instrument of his own will.

There’s also a lesson here about not trying to be too clever in politics. Costello could have had the leadership in 1995, but he didn’t push his claims then because he assumed that the 1996 election was a bridge too far. That wasn’t an unreasonable belief at the time, but it turned out to be wrong — as reasonable beliefs often do. Howard, despite his flaws, showed himself the better politician because he realised that opportunities have to be taken when they arise, even if it that doesn’t look ideal.

Better to take the risk than to spend your career waiting for the ideal chance that never comes.

Peter Fray

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