Howard down, but not out

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2007, 12:00am

John Howard is arguably the most successful conservative politician in the western world.

During his 11 years in office, Mr Howard, 68, has presided over an unprecedented economic boom, elevated Australia's confidence in itself and raised the country's profile on the world stage by sending troops to Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

Mr Howard's administration has been untainted by the sort of sleaze that marked the last years of the Clinton presidency or the Tory governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major in Britain.

Warmly received by President Hu Jintao , the Australian prime minister has been hailed by the most powerful man on the planet, US President George W. Bush, as a 'man of steel'. Unemployment is at its lowest level for 33 years and personal wealth is at an all-time high. Yet for all his triumphs, 'Little Johnny' as he is known by his countrymen, faces political annihilation on a historic scale.

For months, opinion polls have suggested that his coalition government will suffer a humiliating defeat to the opposition Labor Party at the federal election on November 24. He could lose his own seat, the Sydney constituency of Bennelong.

The latest poll, out yesterday, showed that the government trails Labor 54 per cent to 46 per cent.

All the surveys point to Labor leader Kevin Rudd, 50, a Putonghua-speaking former diplomat whose last posting was Beijing, as Australia's next prime minister.

How can this be? What is it that Mr Howard has done to lose the confidence of Australians? First and foremost, voters appear to have grown tired of the former lawyer.

It may not be a very rational motive for ditching an elected leader, but there is an undeniable mood of ennui across the country. He has, after all, been appearing on the front pages of newspapers and on television screens since 1996.

Many people yearn for a fresh face - and they come none fresher than Mr Rudd, whose squeaky clean image and boyish appearance has earned him the nicknames Harry Potter and the Milky Bar Kid.

Mr Rudd is vigorously pushing the line that the prime minister is stale, tired and out of ideas.

Secondly, the extraordinary strength of the economy may not be the advantage for Mr Howard that it once was. The fact that the present boom - in part based on the export of billions of dollars' worth of raw materials to China - has gone on for 16 years has bred a dangerous complacency. The feeling is that the good times are here to stay, regardless of who is at the helm.

'People are taking the strong economy for granted,' said Wayne Errington, a lecturer in politics at the Australian National University who co-wrote a recent biography of Mr Howard.

'Unless Labor is intent on really raising taxes or upsetting the economy in some way, voters seem happy to elect them. Rudd presents himself as a fiscal conservative and people appear to accept that.'

There is also recognition that the foundations for the boom were established by the macroeconomic reforms of Mr Howard's predecessors, Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

A range of other issues has prompted public anger and eroded the government's popularity.

On their own, none of them would be serious enough to imperil the government. But taken together they could spell disaster for Mr Howard and Co.

There is deep distrust of his industrial relations reforms, which make it easier for firms to sack staff and further weaken the influence of the country's once powerful unions.

Mr Howard has also been hurt by his pledge to hand over power to his deputy, Treasurer Peter Costello, some time during the next three-year parliamentary term. Mr Costello, whose nickname is 'Captain Smirk', is unpopular with many voters.

The Iraq war is an issue, although on nowhere near the same scale as in the United States and Britain. Australia has yet to suffer a combat death in Iraq, but the war remains deeply unpopular. Labor's pledge to withdraw Australia's 550 combat troops by the middle of next year goes down well with many voters.

The government's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming has also angered many Australians, who have become increasingly aware of their vulnerability to climate change by the worst drought on record.

That said, only a fool would write off John Winston Howard. There are five weeks to go before the election - more than enough time for him to prove his reputation as one of the canniest politicians of his generation. In the past three elections, the prime minister has come from behind and won, and he could do it again.

'I don't accept that he's heading for annihilation,' said Gerard Henderson, a former chief of staff to Mr Howard and head of The Sydney Institute independent think-tank.

'I think he's capable of coming back. Under our compulsory voting system, a lot of people don't make up their mind on who they'll vote for until the week or even the day before the election. He has a substantial task ahead of him, but it's not impossible.'

Mr Howard's latest personal approval is 52 per cent - an extraordinarily high rating for a leader at the end of his fourth term in office (Mr Bush's approval rating has dipped beneath 30 per cent).

And there was a further glimmer of hope this week with a poll showing that most voters trust him on managing the economy and national security - the twin planks of the government's past four election victories.

Mr Howard has built his popularity on a mix of social conservatism and economic liberalism. His lower-middle-class background - his father ran a suburban petrol station in Sydney - appealed to millions of working class 'battlers' aspiring to a better life for their families.

There is a large proportion of the population that detests him. They are ashamed of his refusal to apologise to Aborigines for past injustices and appalled at his tough treatment of asylum seekers.

They accuse him of having hijacked and absorbed the values of the far-right One Nation party of Pauline Hanson, and of selling out on the environment. They cringe at his support for Washington and his close personal friendship with Mr Bush.

Social commentator and author Hugh Mackay calls Mr Howard 'the master of so-called dog-whistle politics': fostering prejudices with carefully coded language.

But the Howard haters have been around since his first term in office. The question is whether their numbers have risen to a level that could unseat him next month.

Mr Howard stunned the nation on Monday when he announced that if re-elected he would offer voters A$34 billion (HK$235.33 billion) in tax cuts over five years.

'Observers were taken completely by surprise by that,' said Dr Errington. 'You can never write him off.'

The government has launched a powerful scare campaign, claiming that 70 per cent of Labor's front bench are ex-union bosses who would wreck the nation's trillion-dollar economy.

'Labor would be the most union-dominated government that Australians have ever seen,' Mr Costello said this week. 'A union-dominated Labor government would be a risk to business, to jobs, to economic growth and to Australia's economic future.'

Ministers will hammer away at that message right up until polling day. In an election campaign in which hip-pocket issues are likely to decide the outcome, the strategy could just work. Mr Howard may be down, but he is certainly not out. In 1989, when he lost the leadership of the Liberal Party, he said he would need the strength of 'Lazarus with a triple bypass' to make a political comeback. And yet he went on to become Australia's second-longest-serving prime minister.

'The man of steel' could yet show he has the mettle to win a historic fifth term in office.


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Howard down, but not out

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