Howard rides the vacuum

Tuesday, 17 July 2007 

So Dennis Shanahan was right.

Howard’s rise in the preferred PM ranking in the last Newspoll was important. Armed with it, Howard apparently went into the Cabinet room yesterday and dared (‘invited’) the Cabinet to blame him for the government’s poor polling figures. No-one took him on, of course – and probably wouldn’t have, even if they were looking at more recent AC Nielsen ratings that showed the exact opposite. Ministers interviewed outside insisted of course there was no challenge to Howard.

The question is why not? By any objective reading of the polling figures the government is heading for a historic defeat. Despite this being clear since the Rudd ascendancy, political commentators have, until recently, refused to believe them. Now it seems to be only The Australian editorial team who is still expecting a repeat of 2001/2004. The Liberals are hardly a sentimental lot, yet it seems that the more serious the situation is getting, the more they seem to cling on to Howard.

The lack of a challenge is because there is no-one to challenge him. One of the pervading myths of this government is that Costello has always been a potential challenger to Howard – but there is nothing to suggest why he would be. Despite Howard clearly lacking a policy agenda nowadays, Costello has still yet to produce an alternative. If he had, we would have seen it in the few times he had the chance to steal the agenda this year. The clearest missed opportunity was the budget in May, a political failure reflecting the politician who brought it down.

It is this vacuum that is the secret to the current Liberal unity. Howard’s dare to Cabinet yesterday is a continuation of the dare he has issued repeatedly to the party implicit in his intention to ‘stay as long as the party wants me’. He can issue that dare because for years the Liberals have been operating in a domestic policy vacuum, which was already evident in the states and now, since the fading of the War on Terror, is evident federally too. The ultimate reason for that lack of agenda is the fact that most of it was completed by the Hawke/Keating government, which led to the hellish merry-go-round in the Liberal leadership during those years that enabled even Howard to have another go (and may even do the same for Downer in the future).

This policy vacuum is the missing factor that a perplexed government cannot see to explain its imminent defeat. Abbot looks genuinely uncomprehending over the current awful polls as he points to the strong economy. But what precisely is their economic programme that underpins it?

Without any real challenge, there is a deceptive calm over the government that disguises a much weaker internal situation. This may only come out when Howard goes, a reason why the party seems to be clinging to him now more than ever. For the moment, the only real outward sign is the growing inability of the leadership to keep control over its branches, as becoming evident not only in the dysfunctional Queensland party but also, after the recent preselections of Towke and Hawke, even in Howard’s own NSW base.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 17 July 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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