CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Eight months for Howard to claw his way back
, February 17, 2007
Labor's Kevin Rudd is proving to be surprisingly effective as the new Opposition leader.It is not inconceivable, though highly unlikely, that Prime Minister John Howard could delay the federal election until early next year.
Constitutional and electoral laws would permit the PM to delay the election for the House of Representatives until Saturday, January 19, 2008, although October or November 2007 remain the most likely choices.
Pushing the election to the other side of Christmas would, of course, signal the Government was running up the white flag.
But if the polls continue to slide for the Government, Mr Howard may have to at least consider a delay to the last possible date — possibly December — because the Howard era could be coming to a close.
Mr Howard says he has "been here before", recalling that polls showed he was well behind Mark Latham early in the latter's brief leadership, and he has told his party-room colleagues that no post-World War II government has been thrown out without a crisis in the economy.
Coalition MPs are convinced they will, in the end, be returned. Their confidence is based on two factors — the Government's record on the economy and Mr Howard's proven track record as a campaigner.Wily operator
However, new Labor leader Kevin Rudd is not only enjoying the traditional media honeymoon, but is also proving to be a wily operator who has modelled his political operation on John Howard himself.
Given that he is not likely to implode like Mark Latham, it will take months of scrutiny and pressure to expose Mr Rudd's shortcomings and to open the cracks between his view of the world and those of Labor's latte-left.
The Government also has a number of issues running against it which are not easily disposed of.
While, statistically, the economy is running strongly, families are mortgaged to the hilt, farmers are suffering from a protracted drought, and there are real fears that Australia has put all its eggs into the minerals basket.
When the minerals boom ends, people worry that Australia does not have the balanced economy to sustain our prosperity.
The five-year incarceration of David Hicks, the $11 billion takeover of Qantas and the hysteria over "climate change" are also hurting the Government.
The proposed leveraged buyout of Qantas is extremely unpopular in the electorate.
Quite apart from the "iconic" nature of the airline — its safety record and play on nationalist sentiment — voters are sceptical of government and consortium assurances on jobs, local maintenance and continuation of regional services.
The consortium is also taking on massive debt, and voters know these assurances will disappear completely if the airline collapses under this weight.
The Howard Government has used its foreign ownership blocking powers just once since coming to power — to stop Dutch Shell's takeover of Woodside — and will come under serious pressure to do so again.
Mr Howard has also recognised that public sentiment has turned over the David Hicks affair. He must be deeply regretting he did not follow British Prime Minister Tony Blair's example when he pulled British prisoners out of Guantanamo Bay at the earliest opportunity.
Hicks's predicament has been partly fanned by groups and individuals who have used his plight as a weapon against the Howard Government. But after five years without Hicks having been brought to trial, ordinary Australian voters have lost patience with the Howard and Bush administrations.
Australians have no sympathy for Hicks's alleged actions or motivations, but have a strong sense of justice and belief in the pillars of a fair trial and presumption of innocence.
But getting Hicks out now is extremely difficult because the wheels of the U.S. Military Commission, which has finally charged him, are likely to grind slowly.
Finally, the Government is racing to catch up to the issue of "climate change", while trying to maintain a degree of scepticism and distance from the doomsayers.
Predictions are being made about sea levels rising a metre or more, temperatures hotting up by six degrees and the extinction of polar bears and other animals over the next century.
The problem for the Howard Government is that it has only eight months to show that it is at least concerned about the possibility that these predictions may come to fruition.