CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Howard turns eyes to NSW poll
, February 8, 2003
John Howard has stuck religiously to an unusual ritual he performs at least six times a year, and which he has repeated every year for the entire period he has been Prime Minister.
Attendance at the annual state divisions of the Liberal Party is part of the Prime Minister's not-to-be-touched annual schedule no matter what else is happening and who else is in the country.
Perhaps the Queen's visit might force a cancellation of the South Australian division's meet, but she would be one of the few.
To the media, the ritual appears to be a tad unnecessary for a busy PM, and even a little odd given that he has been the guest of honour to more or less the same function at least 40 times (including federal conferences).Predictable
The Howard conference speeches are generally predictable, and are intended more to rally and inspire the troops than to announce new policies or to grab headlines for the next day.
But Mr Howard sees them as important because it is his way of giving back something to the party officials and supporters who put Liberal MPs into parliament and power.
Unfortunately, those state branches have never been more dispirited than they are today, despite the fact the Coalition dominates Federal politics in a way which has not been seen for decades.
Mr Howard wants to do everything he can to help defeat Bob Carr in his home state of New South Wales, but the venture is riddled with dangers. The state branches are showing clear signs of decay as each state election sends more sitting Liberals to the unemployment queue.
To understand why the "state" problem is so serious for the Liberal Party, the actual perks of office need to be spelt out.
As each member loses so to does the capacity of the party to employ young Liberals as staffers to gain experience in politics.
So too does a taxpayer-funded base to build branches, party supporters and encourage new people to come into the party.
State governments can also appoint a raft of people (very often party members and supporters) to boards, judicial benches, committees, and consultancies which in turn also builds support and a constituency for the party in power (currently Labor in every state and territory).
Years of this sort of power create a Tammany Hall culture as was happening in the Northern Territory, and which appears to be the mentality of the NSW Labor Right.
Conversely, the party which is out of power becomes more and more impotent.
The NSW state Liberal Party's woes are compounded by three further factors unique to themselves - the low pay of MPs, the drying up of donations, and the increasingly dominant libertine views of party members.
The party is failing to bring in well-qualified candidates because there is little attraction for business people and others in politics at a state level - which is mainly about the successful delivery of services such as roads, health and police.
And the lurch to the left on social issues by Liberal Party MPs and influential party members, which appears to be unstoppable, is alienating the conservative heartland.
This brings us to the state election in New South Wales where Mr Howard is reported to be the party's secret weapon in the upcoming campaign.
Mr Howard is an indefatigable campaigner and wants to use his seasoned skills to promote and assist the young and untested John Brogden. But the problem, as shown clearly by the Victorian election, is that voters have a greater disernment about state and federal spheres of politics than ever before.
Appearances on the hustings by John Howard may actually backfire because they will reinforce the view that people are happy with Howard in Canberra, and want Bob Carr to keep running NSW.
If Brogden loses badly, which appears quite likely, Howard's electoral shine could be tarnished and this will help reignite talk about his retirement.
On the other hand, Carr will be wanting to reinforce perceptions about his own campaigning skills and show he can match Howard on the hustings.
Carr does not want to go to Canberra, but is enough of a student of history and politics to know that if he performs well and defeats Brogden (and John Howard at the same time), the party may have to come to him and beg him to change his mind.
Howard would be better advised to have a low profile in the campaign with a few calculated incisions, and leave the party to crash.
The only answer for the Liberals is a serious reality check and a wholesale cleanout and rebuilding of its parliamentary wing along the lines that Michael Kroger and Peter Costello performed in Victoria in the 1980s.