CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Contenders for the Howard succession
, December 17, 2005
Apart from Peter Costello, who are the other likely contenders for the federal Liberal leadership, should John Howard resign?Despite regular conjecture about the likely retirement of John Howard early to the middle of next year, events of the past few weeks have made the identity of his likely successor murkier rather than clearer.
While Peter Costello has always been considered the most likely person to succeed Mr Howard, the passing of the baton could still be some way off.
Treasurer Costello has been the heir-apparent for practically the life of the Government but, unlike Treasurer Paul Keating, he has never been given an unwritten promise of succession.
Mr Costello, however, has encountered some troubled waters in recent times and the danger is that the marginal seat-holders, whose number one concern is their own jobs, may start urging Mr Howard to stay on for just one more election.
The "Robert Gerard Affair" has been quite a blow to Peter Costello's ambitions, creating doubts among Liberal backbench about his political judgement.Government inertia
It comes after a number of miscalls by the Treasurer. Meanwhile, pressure is building from business and political groups over the Government's inertia on tax reform.
These groups argue that Mr Costello, who has presided over several "fat" years, is now sitting on a mountain of cash, but has failed to use the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attempt serious reform of the tax system.
They say the Government cannot continue to claim credit for bringing in an indirect tax in the form of the GST without a complete overhaul of the personal and business tax systems as well as of the welfare/tax mix.
In any event, the GST was introduced more than five years ago and, as both Mr Howard and Mr Costello continually argue, reform has to be ongoing.
The truth about the succession question is that there are only two people who are likely to be privy to Mr Howard's departure plans.
But even those two (J. and J. Howard) may not yet know the date because they may not have decided yet.
Mr Howard has adopted a private formula for conducting his ongoing duties as PM, which entails running as hard as he can for the duration of his time in office.
There may be some indulgences in the form of more frequent overseas trips, but the intensity of the PM's workload is not likely to diminish until the announcement of his resignation.
Which leaves everyone, and Mr Costello in particular, guessing. Mr Costello then has the choice of knuckling down and perhaps using his time to introduce the historic Costello tax system - or challenging and probably losing.
A third option is to quit politics altogether.
Apart from Mr Costello, the other "contenders" include Tony Abbott, Brendan Nelson and Alexander Downer.
Other names such as Malcolm Turnbull, who has been in Parliament just a year, are literally in the realm of fantasy.
Tony Abbott has also been dealt blows to his long-term leadership hopes.
The backflip by Cabinet over the Medicare Safety Net (after Mr Abbott had made an "iron-clad guarantee" of no change, and then was forced to make a substantial one three months later) harmed Mr Abbott's credibility as a politician.
But, more recently, he has come under attack from a powerful pro-abortion female lobby inside the Liberal Party, led by MPs such as Victorian Sharman Stone and NSW Senator Helen Coonan.
The group has undermined Mr Abbott's authority as Health Minister by trying to overturn the ban on the RU486 abortion drug.
Urged on by the Australian Democrats leader Lyn Allison, the group appears to have convinced Mr Howard to take the decision-making power over the drug from the Health Minister and hand it to the Therapeutic Drugs Administration.
The ban was introduced in 1996 and has been in place under three health ministers, including Senator Kay Patterson who is not known as an anti-abortion campaigner.
But now Mr Abbott faces the ignominy of having to sign off on importing a drug into Australia which he believes is both harmful and morally wrong.Abbott's dilemma
For the second time in a year, Mr Abbott may be faced with a decision on whether or not to resign from Cabinet.
The headline-seeking Brendan Nelson is more assiduous in duchessing the backbench than Mr Abbott, but his reputation inside Cabinet is not as high.
Despite everything, it is hard to fathom a former Labor Party member becoming a Liberal Prime Minister.
Finally, Alexander Downer continues to trail his leadership cloak, making speeches to cement his "conservative" credentials.
Mr Downer has remade himself since the disastrous Downer/Costello Dream Team of 1995 and is widely recognised as a successful Foreign Minister.
Mr Howard continues to be the strongest bet going into the New Year, and while ever his health and his enthusiasm for the job last, so will his prime ministership.