CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Will Howard's career end in an election slaughter?
, August 18, 2007
With only a couple of months to go, Mr Howard is running out of time to defy those predicting his end.Has Kevin Rudd peaked, or are we witnessing the dying days of John Howard's prime ministership and his 11-year-old government?
Going into the last month of parliament before the federal election, the polls suggest the latter, but it is still premature to say with certainty that the Howard Government is finished. However, the portents are not good.
Certainly, Mr Howard faces his toughest fight as he seeks voter endorsement for an historic fifth term.
Yet there are signs too of cracks in Mr Rudd's extraordinary public-relations assault, which has succeeded in putting, and keeping, him way ahead in the opinion polls for the past eight months.
The Queensland federal Labor leader's deliberate imitation of the PM's political style and his extraordinary tactic of being a policy "echo" have earned Mr Rudd criticism of being "Howard-lite".More credible
If the polls are to be believed, voters appear to want to dump Mr Howard for a younger yet somehow more credible version of Mr Howard.
Mr Rudd has adopted so many of the Government's policies that he has recently been forced to declare that there are in fact three areas of clear difference between Labor and the Government, namely the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, a pull-out from Iraq and a reversion to a past industrial relations policy.
Ratifying Kyoto is at best a symbolic gesture; Iraq is a matter of the timing of a now inevitable withdrawal - Mr Rudd was himself originally a strong advocate of military intervention against Saddam Hussein's regime.
So industrial relations is really the sole major policy area where the two major parties collide.
Mr Rudd's recent calls for the Government to do "something" about housing affordability and rising grocery prices had all the appearance of either grandstanding, regurgitating the views of focus groups, or both.
Nevertheless, it is Mr Rudd who remains comfortably ahead, and most political commentators now believe he will win the coming election handsomely, possibly with a landslide.
There is still little voter scepticism about Mr Rudd's shallow agenda, but this may increase during the campaign when he is put to the test.
In modern politics, 11 years is a long time, and the decision by the Howard Government to move toward a US-style industrial-relations system may have been the single greatest political miscalculation of Mr Howard's long political career.
Despite recent changes designed to protect workers on lower incomes, the Government's own private polling reveals that people feel nervous, powerless and uncomfortable with the new IR laws.
The shifting of the balance of power away from the unions to employers may be good for the economy in general and company profits in particular, but it may also mean that workers have not benefitted from the boom as much as the Government would like to think.
By his own admission, Mr Howard says this is his most difficult election in 20 years - only the loss to Bob Hawke back in 1987 was tougher, he said recently.
Even Mr Howard's biographer David Barnett says the PM should step down for his own good.
In a recent piece for the Canberra Times
, Mr Barnett says it would be a "great tragedy" that Mr Howard's career ends in an election slaughter.
"He's the best prime minister we have ever had, but the great financial and economic programs that have transformed Australia have all been put into effect," Mr Barnett wrote.
"He (Mr Howard) has failed to turn around the catastrophic collapse of support for the Coalition that has occurred since Rudd became ALP leader last year.
"As Mr Howard himself has said, to serve as prime minister is a great honour and privilege. He would serve it best now by stepping aside."
Harsh words from one of Mr Howard's strongest admirers.
Mr Howard does have the luxury of a 16-seat majority, but with only a couple of months to go, he is running out of time to defy those predicting his end.