Howard is not the problem

Monday, 10 September 2007 

Janet Albrechtsen’s column last week calling for Howard to step down was apparently one of the hardest she will write, which is understandable as it certainly was one of her most incoherent. It starts badly because she thinks that the government has had an agenda in its 11½ years. Apparently, Howard:

created the conditions for a whole new class of aspirational Australians to prosper from the inevitable forces of globalisation, confronted the scourge of terrorism and has fundamentally realigned the political landscape in this country on so many fronts.

On top of this, Albrechtsen claims that Howard made conservatism cool again. The fact that Albrechtsen equates Howard with ‘cool’ is a giveaway that she is talking about the wrong guy.

The problem conservative commentators have in this country is that the sort of policies they so admire, opening up to the markets, financial deregulation and marginalising the unions were done by Labor, not the conservatives (something that causes problems for left-wing commentators too). When it is over, Howard’s government will be credited with little but a tax suggested by Keating, and IR reform that even business didn’t need.

Because Albrechtsen doesn’t recognise the vacuum at the heart of the Howard government (unlike her employer), she can’t get what the Liberals’ problem is. Instead she blames the usual scapegoat for Australian political commentators – the electorate. For Albrechtsen, the government is in trouble because voters are too complacent to appreciate the wonderful government they have. Being a shallow lot, the best remedy for the electorate’s boredom is a fresh face so the media would start paying attention to the government again.

The electorate may be bored, but that is because the government has nothing of substance to say. It is hard to see how that can change. Never mind that other Liberals poll even worse than Howard (she says that such ratings were not the issue for Rudd succeeding Beazley, her colleague Mr Shanahan might have something to say about that). The problem is, once in front of the cameras, what would this fresh face say? Andrew Bolt, another conservative commentator calling for Howard’s replacement, on Insiders said that the Liberals have gone into denial over what is happening. Maybe senior Liberals are bewildered why they are heading to defeat, but at least they have a better grasp than Andrew Bolt why changing leaders will not help. They know there is nobody in the Liberals waiting with an alternative programme, best summed up by the sham challenger, Costello, whose supporters can follow their leader in moaning about Howard behind his back, but cannot produce an alternative agenda to challenge him.

This ‘challenge without a challenger’, where senior Liberals now doubt Howard can win, but can see no alternative, is clearly demoralising. Downer, who should have been managing such a transition, seemed resigned to the PM hanging on to the bitter end on Meet The Press yesterday. However, Bolt was right on one thing, this can only be ended either by Howard stepping down or calling an election. As the first is highly unlikely, it suggests announcing the election is the only way out.

APEC gave little positive momentum from which to call an election. The problem with the climate change declaration is not so much its vagueness, which is normal for an issue that is essentially just diplomatic protocol, but that Howard has no domestic agenda on climate change to link it with. What APEC did, however, was to highlight the shift in international relations caused by growing uncertainty over US leadership, and that Rudd was better placed to manage it (although he came very close to over-playing his hand with China).

But at least APEC did break the negative dynamic Howard created with his disastrous War on the States strategy of which the latest evidence comes out in ACNielsen this morning. Not much of a positive, more like a non-negative, but the best the government can probably hope for now. Unless Howard goes back to taking on the states, the government’s standing has probably gone as low as it can go. Election timing is now caught between Howard waiting for that momentum to become positive and the demoralising impact on a party that knows what the result will be. The current focus on Howard should be seen as the start of the tearing up of his legacy once it happens.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 10 September 2007.

Filed under Key posts, Political figures

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