When will John Howard step down?by News WeeklyNews Weekly
, May 4, 2002
Regrettably, but perhaps unavoidably, the next 12 months of federal politics is going to be played out through the prism of one fairly tedious issue - that of John Howard’s impending retirement.
Every move the Prime Minister makes, or conversely any lack of movement, is going to be viewed as a sign, however unintended, of his intention to stay or leave Canberra after 28 years in politics and seven years as PM.
Is he a lame duck leader? Does he have a third-term vision for his government? Is Peter Costello remaking himself? What kind of Prime Minister will Mr Costello make? Will Howard change his mind and give it one last shot?
These questions and many other variations on the theme will be churned and mulled over as the critical date of July 26 next year gets closer. Speculation
Howard has tried to dampen such talk by declaring that he would be merely be "thinking about’’ his future on his birthday, not actually making a decision.
He has also redeclared that his love, enthusiasm and fitness for the nation’s top job is undiminished. And he has even raised the spectre of a double dissolution in order to bring an intransigent Senate into line. In other words he might even call another election mid-term.
There are no other realistic prospective candidates for replacing Howard besides Peter Costello.
The only two serious conservative prospects are Tony Abbott and Senator Nick Minchin. The former has inexplicably put his field marshal’s baton back in the knapsack, and the latter refuses to budge from the upper house.
Others who fancy themselves as leadership contenders, people like Brendan Nelson, Alexander Downer and Philip Ruddock, would simply not have the support to contest, nor the capacity to do the job.
So with Costello the obvious and only realistic contender, Howard could achieve something of a coup by quietly hand over the keys of The Lodge to his Treasurer next year.
Indeed, it would be the first smooth hand over of Prime Ministerial power since Menzies left politics in January, 1966, passing the mantle to his Treasurer, Harold Holt.
All the Prime Ministerial careers subsequent to that date have ended in bitterness and disappointment, and sometimes quite literally in tears. Howard’s 64th birthday - the day he promised to "have a think" about his political future - coincides with a very important date in Australian politics.
Between now and then, Howard will overtake the Prime Ministerial record of several significant historical figures.
Stanley Bruce (who served as Prime Minister for 6 years, 8 months), Joe Lyons (7 years, 3 months 2 days), Billy Hughes (7 years, 3 months, 14 days), and Malcolm Fraser (7 years, 4 months).
If Howard survives until July 26 he will become Australia’s third longest serving Prime Minister. Only Bob Hawke and his hero, Sir Robert Menzies, will be ahead of him.
It is the Fraser record, of course, that Howard will most relish eclipsing. A young and quite green John Howard served uncomfortably as Treasurer during the latter period of Fraser’s Prime Ministership.
Howard wanted to do more to reform the economy, and he has always viewed that apprenticeship in a Liberal Government as one of lost opportunity. He regretted not standing up to Fraser more, and the pair’s last Budget in 1982 was generally considered "a shocker".
The new Hawke Labor Government certainly reminded him of the fact for several years afterward.
Fraser’s humanitarian quest over recent years, including stances which have embarrassed Howard’s Government and which were intended to prick its conscience - has done little to make the friendship any warmer. Most pundits and the most senior watchers in the Parliamentary Press Gallery believe Howard will go soon after passing Fraser’s term.
The arguments go that Howard has achieved all he wants to in politics, including some very significant social and economic reforms. He had defied all the doubters and has exceeded all expectations as a reformist conservative leader.
Leaders rarely get to go at a time of their choosing, and Howard will leave on a high, etc. By any measure, and certainly as far as the conservative side of politics is concerned, Howard would be remembered as one of Australia's better Prime Ministers.
It is too early to give an historical take on the Howard era, but some are already arguing he is the most substantial conservative Prime Minister after Menzies and Alfred Deakin.
However, until the day itself, it is impossible to predict Howard's intentions, and for all the speculation it is entirely possible that the most important person in the whole equation has not yet made up his mind.
Howard certainly cannot publicly confirm this now or he will indeed be a lame duck leader.
At the same time, Costello's forces are now completely out of patience, and are prepared to move should Howard change his mind.
As far as they are concerned there will be an amicable and smooth transition of power, and any suggestion of another date closer to the next election would be viewed as intolerable.
A leadership showdown would follow, tarnishing Howard's last months as Prime Minister.
Only in that scenario could the unpredictable happen and other candidates emerge to thwart Costello's ambitions.