CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Is Howard Government running out of time?
, June 5, 2004
One of John Howard's better character traits is an aversion to any suggesting of boasting or self-congratulatory behaviour.
He carefully avoids commentary on his own Prime Ministership, leaving it to others to judge his period in office.
And whether through genuine humility, or the more likely thorough political good sense, Howard has shied away from celebrating anniversaries, political milestones and other achievements during his eight years in office.
But he had little choice but to attend a recent 30-years-in-politics bash with all proceeds of the $275-a-head dinner going to the cash-strapped New South Wales Liberal Party.
The Hordern Pavillion event attracted 1,200 of Mr Howard's closest friends and is believed to have raised a not inconsiderable war chest of $300,000 for the coming election.Career achievement
Three decades in federal politics is certainly some achievement.
Only two MPs, Philip Ruddock and Alan Cadman, who are also incidentally both from Sydney, have served longer in the current Parliament, and since Federation only 22 other members of the House of Representatives have exceeded the 30-year milestone.
Among the 30-year club are six Prime Ministers which suggests again that one of the prerequisites for leading the country is a long period sitting in Parliament.
Very few Australian politicians have jumped straight into the Prime Minister's job, with most having to serve around 20 years as backbencher, in opposition and in government, as minister and shadow.
And while Mr Howard has created great controversy through some of his political actions, even his opponents would concede his contribution to public policy has been enormous in the areas of taxation, industrial relations, defence, foreign and family policy.
Mr Howard is undoubtedly the pre-eminent Liberal politician of his generation.
Unfortunately though, when it comes to today's political horizon, there is very little to celebrate at all.
The Howard-led Coalition Government is facing a seemingly growing mountain of problems, very few of which it has any control over.
Major difficulties include rising petrol prices, interest rates, falling house prices, the Iraq War, politicians' perks, and possibly the most difficult of all: how to offer something new after eight quite active years in office.
None of these problems on their own will destroy a government but put together they create a climate for serious consideration of the political alternative.
Self-inflicted wounds like the travel escapades of South Australian MP Trish Draper do not help the government's standing in the electorate.
The Howard Government appears tired, short on new ideas, and unable to tackle a disciplined and, for the first time in several years, hungry-for-office Labor Party.
Having tied himself to US President George Bush and Britain's Tony Blair in the war against terror, Mr Howard is inextricably tied to their political fortunes.
Whatever good intentions or high-minded goals for peace in the Middle East the US once had in getting rid of Saddam Hussein, events have turned badly in ways no one expected, and it now appears the US is trying to extricate itself from the country.The Latham approach
For his part Mr Latham is adopting a small target policy, refusing to release details on big ticket policy until the election, and stealing the Government's oxygen by calling for the abolition of ATSIC.
Policies that are being released are uncontroversial and designed for maximum appeal, such as the post-budget "learn or earn'' plan to get young people actively working for getting ready for a job.
Mr Howard is running out of time to turn around the Government's fortunes and requires some bold initiatives to undercut Mr Latham's populism.
As every day passes, it is becoming a big ask and will require every ounce of experience of Mr Howard's 30 years in the federal political arena to turn the situation around.