John Howard’s political and leadership style has always been a curious mixture of strong resolve in the face of extraordinary opposition and adversity, but peppered by occasional bouts of panic decision-making. The past month or so has easily been the worst period of the latter approach, with the Howard Government making a series of spectacular backdowns and policy backflips.
In a bid to avoid repeating the Keating madness of delusion and denial of his final year in office, Howard and his team have gone to the opposite extreme in response to mounting evidence of a resentful and ruthless electorate which is determined to vent its spleen in an election year.
When a far darker mood was festering in the twilight of the Keating Government, the imperious Keating refused to alter his course of self-indulgence, turning his back on most of the media, digging his toes in on trivial issues such as protecting Carmen Lawrence, and dreaming up grander and grander visions to cloak the political problems on the home front.
Howard instead has junked every unpopular policy on the table, and has instigated a rethink on almost all aspects of the direction of the government.
But the speed of the backdowns and the confusion they have created has led to new problems including public division with his Treasurer Peter Costello over fiscal policy, and renewed leadership speculation. Unpopular policies such as the taxing of trusts and the full sale of Telstra have been only temporarily shelved adding to the mixed messages the Government is sending.
The unintended result is that all focus is now on the Government rather than the mediocre and vacuous Opposition which has failed to spell out even in broad terms how it would run the country.
Some of the Howard policy backflips have also been extremely costly for seemingly very little electoral benefit – most notably the $1.5 billion petrol excise cut, and the hundreds of millions in extra funding for research and development.
And the over-arching problem with political backdowns is that people sense weakness and make further demands. It is not unlike giving in to extortionists and kidnappers – and there are plenty of these among the pressure groups and lobbyists in Canberra.
Former Northern Territory ALP Senator Bob Collins described it most succinctly:
“Howard’s like the bloke who confronts the giant croc and tries to placate him with half a chicken. But what the croc wants is the whole chicken. And the bloke’s arm.”
Howard’s strategy has been to eliminate as many negatives as possible with the hope of bringing down a very good May Budget which will make people forget the problems of the BAS, petrol prices and other niggling issues.
But even a generous budget is proving doubtful because the deteriorating Australian and world economies are likely to push up unemployment and dampen growth.
The “markets” are warning the government not to change course too radically or the overseas investors will pull the plug. Events are converging on all sides against the re-election of the Howard Government.
Having happily passed his nemesis Paul Keating’s period of four years and two months as Prime Minister, and Chifley’s period of four years and five months, Howard looks increasingly unlikely to overtake the next longest serving PM – Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who served for six years and eight months. The parallels with that Prime Minister are quite interesting as Bruce was, until he hit the wall of the depression, an excellent but under-rated Prime Minister.
One thing which may help save Howard is the overkill of most of the political commentators who are positively salivating at the prospect of Howard being humiliated in a landslide in December.
As so often happens in Australia when there is this type of media feeding frenzy, the Australian public gets bored and eventually rebels against the ritual humiliation and swings back the other way.
Up until very recently Howard was considered a better Prime Minister in almost all opinion polls, even in polls which showed the deteriorating popularity of the Government. There is substantial residual for Howard’s strengths and abilities and his mainstream values.
Unless the Government falls completely apart in infighting and leadership squabbles, Beazley is still likely to fall over the line rather than be embraced by the nation in a massive Labor landslide.
The Government has to stop rushing round in every direction and turn the country’s attention on the real alternative – a Beazley Government and what that would mean for Australia.