As many of us who like to observe politics and politicians have been doing of late, I’ve been paying particular attention to the demeanour of the master politician, John Winston Howard.
Howard is clearly a worried man, what with opinion polls continually retreating from him and his party, and even the spectacular of APEC failing to give him any bounce. His outward presence has changed markedly, even from as short a time period as May. No longer the exuberant, confident master of his political destiny, he now portrays the persona of a man on the edge, a man who has had to make concessions and actually say things he’s never normally had to say.
It’s a given that his party – the same party he said he’d heed when the time to step aside finally came – is at odds with him as a leader, and as a political asset. Far from the latter, he now gives every impression of having become a political liability, yet a liability the Liberal Party, and by default the coalition, has decided to bear with despite the sour taste which lingers on following revelations of internal machinations which took place late last week. This is, to me at least, a telling point in both the immediate future of the coalition and it’s post-election future, win or lose.
If the coalition manage to hold onto government, it will be by the slimmest of margins. Howard, by his own admission, won’t see out the full term. Or maybe he will. Last night’s 7:30 Report interview was both ambiguous and revealing in one.
JOHN HOWARD: Well, I’m asking people to vote for somebody who levels with them. I don’t think Steve Bracks and Peter Beattie levelled with their respective publics. I mean, what changed their circumstances between their elections and when they retired? I mean, the glib thing is to say to people you’re going to serve three years even though you know in your heart that may not be the case. Well, I am not going to embrace the glib option. That was the approach taken by others, it’s not the approach that I am going to take.
and then there’s this from later in the interview…
KERRY O’BRIEN: Last question Mr Howard. This also is a message from you to the electors of Bennelong, your own electorate. And you’re saying to them that if they elect you, if they put you back in the Parliament this time, you’re not going to be there for the full three years, at some point in the three years, there’ll be a by-election. Can you see the potential negative in that for them?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, the position in … the position in relation to that is … I mean, I’m very, very upfront. I mean, whether … depending on when I … whether there would be a by-election or not is something that I would determine then, because it has not been unknown for people in those circumstances to serve out their term. It would depend entirely on circumstances.
As Peter Harcher noted in this morning’s column, “Power is seductive, and the higher the power, the deeper the seduction.” Howard truly loves doing what he does. For the power and the glory, it’s my impression. Not necessarily from any deep-seated, heart-felt, ultruistic desire to do well by the Australian people. Howard is addicted to the power & glory. He’ll never step down willingly. As John Hewson is noted as saying, Howard will have to be carried out in a box. If ultruism were his drive, I’d suggest we’d never have seen the ardent political manipulator, wedge specialist and obfuscator for which, in some circles, JWH has become renown. This is where he differs dramatically from the rest of his cabinet team. Downer, Abbott, Nelson, Turnbull, Hockey, Brough, et al might like to think they’re pretty astute politicians, but none are a mere shadow of Howard when it comes to the hard cut & thrust of the dirtiest game around. It’s where his self-proclaimed energy comes from.
And that, dear reader, is precisely why I suspect the acquiescence of the last couple of days has been so evident from those who earlier had decided he should find the door and go. No other Liberal Party front-bencher has the guile and determination Howard has. Nor does any one of them have the desire to hold power as he does. This is why I question the future of the lead party in the coalition, whether it scrapes back into power or descends into oblivion. They simply have no adequate substitute. The fact that Peter Costello was deliberately cut out of the opinion-gather exercise conducted by Downer says as much.
Here’s something else I noticed in the Howardian demeanour last evening. JWH appears to have adopted a presidential view of his place in the grand scheme. To him, it’s not the party or coalition which voters might be “kind enough” to re-elect. Nor is it an ideology or belief system. It’s him, the individual, who he sees as the focus for the Australian electorate.
“I don’t believe I’ll be defeated, I don’t believe I’ll be defeated in the election, I don’t believe I’ll be defeated in my own seat”
“If the Australian people are good enough and kind enough to re-elect me again, there are a lot of things I want to do, and I would want to approach those things with enormous energy. “
“what I’m saying to the Australian people is I want to be re-elected, there are a lot of things I want to do for them. But well into my term, I would come to the conclusion that it would be in the best interests of everybody if I retired, and in those circumstances, I would expect Peter to take over, but that would be a matter for the Party.”
Fascinating, those last eight words. ‘that would be a matter for the Party’. I wonder if Peter Costello has resigned himself to never sitting in the big chair?
No, dear reader, this has become the mark of the man. John Winston Howard has now become bigger than the role he fills. Larger than political life and twice as important in his own mind. It’s all ‘I’ and ‘me’ not ‘we’ and ‘us’. I’m left to wonder just how many voters can see this. We don’t have a presidential system in this country and we don’t elect individuals. We elect governing collectives for better or worse, based on policy, ideology or belief. Individuals achieve nothing alone. I believe John Howard will fail solely from this one-out self-belief that he and only he is the focus of the Australian electorate. In fact, I believe, for the betterment of Australia moving forward, that we cannot risk devolving our political system to one where we elect an individual mind and ethos in charge of drone functionaries. It’s very close to that right now, and we must avoid it at all costs.