December 2007 - January 2008



By Judith Brett
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Now that John Howard has finally gone, it is possible to start thinking about the future again. All through 2007, as it looked more and more likely that Kevin Rudd would lead Labor to victory, it was hard to think beyond election night. Could Howard perform a miracle after a year’s worth of polls predicting his defeat? Would he lose in Bennelong to Maxine McKew? How would he concede defeat? Graciously? With a repeat of Fraser’s 1983 tear? Or petulantly, as in his grim-faced presentation of the winners’ medals to the English team at the 2003 Rugby World Cup?

We know the answers to all these questions now. Labor won easily. And Howard suffered the double defeat of losing government and his seat of Bennelong. Conceding that the Coalition had lost, Howard was gracious and statesmanlike. He didn’t even look particularly rattled as he congratulated Mr Rudd and Labor, thanked Peter Costello, his staff, his family and the people of Australia, and took “full responsibility” for the campaign and for the defeat. It was a dignified performance. He would have known it was coming. A very tired Alexander Downer told the ABC’s Insiders the next day that he had thought all year that the Coalition would lose the election, as the polls failed to respond to anything the government did.

The campaign was a dull affair, too long and too late after what was effectively a year-long campaign. By the time Howard called the election, it was over. No one was listening, except for the members of the press gallery, who still had to fill columns and columns of comment and speculation, and political junkies like me, who read whatever they write. The voters had already made up their minds. A Sunday Age poll published on 24 October, after the election was called, had Labor with an astonishing 18-point lead over the Coalition, and Coalition support from voters aged between 18 and 29 at just 27%. The polls soon settled back to the 8- to 10-point difference which Labor had held all year, and stubbornly refused to budge - not even for the Coalition’s massive tax cuts, announced the next day; for its scare campaign about a union-dominated Labor front bench; or for its last bag of bribes at the belated campaign launch, at the start of the penultimate week. Two very late polls on the eve of the election told a better story for the government, but the result proved them wrong.

It is a testament to the hold power can exercise on the imaginations of those close to it that, until almost the very end, most of the media persisted in believing Howard still had a chance of defeating Labor. It was as if they were still bewitched by Howard, and refused to believe the evidence that the opinion polls had delivered, week after week for the whole year: that enough of the electorate was over Howard to vote him from office. The interest-rate rise announced after Melbourne Cup Day convinced them Howard couldn’t win, though some commentators still held out the possibility of a miracle in the marginals. After the interest-rate rise, the Liberals, who had started their campaign confidently, with massive tax cuts and the slogan ‘Go for Growth’, had not only to fend off questions about their 2004 election promise to deliver low interest rates, but to explain why the tax cuts were not inflationary and hence likely to lead to more interest-rate rises. Their message had become incoherent in their core area of strength, economic management.

After the interest-rate rise, the Coalition’s campaign fell apart. The nadir was the final Thursday, when the prime minister’s address to the National Press Club was overwhelmed by questions about the Lindsay leaflet. The husbands of the retiring member, Jackie Kelly, and the new candidate, Karen Chijoff, were caught red-handed distributing bogus pamphlets from a bogus Muslim group urging a vote for Labor. Amazingly, the two wives claimed to know nothing about the leaflet. The irony was unbelievable: Howard’s final days in office were dominated by the dogs of racism and xenophobia he had whistled up in 2001 and which, on the eve of defeat, he was desperate to disown.

The steadiness of the polls since early 2007, however, tells us that the major reason for the government’s defeat was not the lacklustre campaign, nor the dodgy leaflet, nor the interest-rate rise, nor anything else that happened during the year. In the March issue of this magazine, I argued that there were three turning points with the potential to undermine Howard’s political success: from age to youth; from fear to hope; from private to public. The tide turned on all three for Howard this year, but I think the origin of his defeat lies earlier, in the advantage he took of his unexpected Senate control to push through the industrial-relations reform he had always believed in. WorkChoices was a massive, hubristic gamble, and one Howard lost. It introduced major changes that were not part of the Coalition’s 2004 election policy, and tilted the balance of workplace power decisively towards employers. Some people lost pay and conditions, but many more lost their faith in the government. On issues of foreign policy, like the decision to support the US invasion of Iraq, for example, most Australians had little choice but to trust the government. And when the government got it wrong, it had no immediate effect on their daily lives. It is Iraqis who have borne that cost. Even in the case of the children-overboard affair, the fact that the government lied had no immediate effect on voters’ everyday lives. But changing the power relations in the workplace was a very different matter. People knew first-hand or from their friends and family what was happening. Government advertising failed to convince them otherwise, and may well have been counterproductive, reinforcing the impression of an arrogant government that believed it called the shots. If they are giving us spin on things we know first-hand, the logic goes, why should we believe them on anything else?

Perhaps Howard would have got away with it, had the Labor Party not changed leaders. But when Rudd became leader, Howard’s defeat became a near certainty, so long as Rudd could hold his nerve. In March I rang Black Inc. and suggested that I write the December Quarterly Essay, based on the premise that Howard would lose the election. I would write the story of Howard’s election year as the one in which he headed for the defeat which all my political intuitions told me was inevitable. That was my gamble, albeit a small one when compared with the stakes politicians play for.

It is when a leader’s grip on political power starts to slip, when his threats and bribes miss their mark, when he starts to make uncharacteristic mistakes, and when what had once been strengths reveal their limitations, that we can see most clearly the inner workings of that leadership. Hanging on when he could have retired, relentlessly attacking Rudd and Labor in a year-long negative campaign, Howard failed to project a convincing fifth-term agenda. In the end, the only reason he could give for voting for the Coalition was that Labor was too big a risk.

Rudd did everything he could to counter that argument, presenting himself as a reassuring fiscal conservative and eschewing too much grand vision and any unscripted rhetorical flourishes. He copied Coalition policies, like the tax cuts, and refused to be drawn into fights on Howard’s agenda. What I can’t decide is whether all this was due to tactics or conviction. Was it that Rudd had Howard’s psychological measure, and had decided never to get far enough away from Howard for him to be able to land an effective punch? He knew, too, that Howard specialised in targeted handouts and the politics of self-interest. With Howard out of the way, what will he be like? Many who voted Labor no doubt hope that Peter Garrett was right, that now Labor has got in, it will just change it all, or at least some of it.

I don’t expect things to change quickly, though I expect the tenor of government will be different as Labor opens up to opinions, groups and interests marginalised under Howard. And with Labor governments in the states, and Rudd’s own experience of state government, we should see a more co-operative and constructive approach to federalism. Policies on health, education, infrastructure and water require the involvement of both levels of government for workable solutions. Howard’s combative and coercive federalism, in which he treated the state governments as barely legitimate obstacles to his will, stalled reform across all these areas. Julie Bishop announcing that a Coalition government would take over the drafting of a national school curriculum in the core subjects of English, maths and the sciences, “to protect students from educational fads”, showed the extent of the government’s denial about the reality of federalism. Who did she think she was? Napoleon?

Howard’s greatest legacy may be the size of his defeat. It will force the Liberal Party into a much-needed period of renewal. Howard left the party with a leadership crisis, and the surprise announcement by Costello on the morning after that he would not contest the leadership threw it into turmoil. It was also a slap in the face to Howard, who went out of his way to anoint Costello in his concession speech. In the next year we can expect to learn a great deal about the inner workings of Howard’s government, as people no longer have a reason to keep silent. The leak about his personal intervention in the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History (to make Les Carlyon’s The Great War the joint winner with the judges’ choice of Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition) could be only the beginning. Perhaps we will finally learn the truth about what happened with children overboard and the Australian Wheat Board’s bribes to Saddam Hussein’s regime. And the way will be cleared for a younger generation of Liberals to think about what the party stands for, beyond Howard’s social conservatism.

This will take some time. It will most likely be two terms before the Liberals have regrouped sufficiently to challenge Labor’s hold on government. Our national politics will have a breathing space, and Labor the chance to work on the policy problems that have been piling up as Howard pursued his politics of division and self-interest. In particular, it will give governments at both levels the chance to work on climate, drought, water and the future health of our ecosystems. WorkChoices may have been the main reason Howard lost, but climate change was an important second factor. His is probably the first incumbent government in the world to have been defeated in part because of its record of denial on climate change. And even if an Australian government can do little to affect the international response to global warming, it still has to prepare Australians for the risk of changed conditions and deal with the consequences of the environmental degradation already in train. Many people will need convincing on this, and, as always with change, some interests will suffer. It will require new ideas, a great deal of co-operation and a capacity to govern for the long term. It will be very difficult, but with Howard gone it might now be possible.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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