A staged implosion

Thursday, 13 September 2007 

During this year Howard has been running two campaigns.

One was against Labor for his re-election. The other was an internal campaign aimed at keeping together his party and core supporters. Issues like union power and Workchoices had an element of both, not only intending to tap into electoral concerns about Labor but also to cohere his party and supporters and remind them what the Liberal party was about. There was always a bit of conflict between the two – banging on about union power is probably not as big a benefit in the marginals as it is for the morale of his own party.

As the polling continued to sap the morale of the party and his authority eroded over the year, the second campaign has grown in importance to the detriment of the electoral campaign. The PM’s announcement last night that he will retire after the next election shows that the second campaign has now eclipsed the one to win the coming election.

Electorally, it is a terrible move. It now formalises the leadership uncertainty and tells the electorate it will continue if the government is re-elected. It now also brings to the front Howard’s critical weak point, that his agenda is exhausted. This is the real reason why the issue of Howard’s age and whether he will stay in the job has had much more resonance this time than in 2004. It is not that 68 is such a different age from 65, but that now his exit is more credible to the electorate because it is harder to imagine now what he would stay around to do. His announcement last night gave the answer, not much.

It is clearly a response to the internal discontent within the party at his leadership that paralysed the Liberal leadership over the last few days. However, although it may stave off a party-room revolt and let Howard survive until the election it will do little good for the Liberals out in the electorate. It will especially not help with those who are sticking with the Liberals for one reason, they like Howard, the Liberals’ most popular choice as leader. Anyone who is sick of Howard already switched to Rudd six months ago, is this announcement supposed to win them back?

It could be argued that bringing someone else in the equation will freshen up the government’s agenda. But politics does not work like that. Readers may have missed it, but Costello launched a little bit of challenge yesterday. At a doorstep interview, he talked something about tax and water and stuff. The irony of this year was that it would have been helpful to Howard if Costello did actually start to challenge him by proposing an alternative agenda, like he could have done with the Budget. It would at least have enabled the electorate to see a Liberal life beyond Howard. However, Costello has failed to do so. If this had been a convincing enough alternative to Howard, he would have been leader by now. If a Liberal party room desperate for another course than the one heading to a historic defeat is not convinced that Costello is an alternative, why should the electorate?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 13 September 2007.

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