Monday, July 03, 2006

COMMENT: Howard’s fingers are slipping

Politics isn’t the most exact science on the planet. The best that most political commentators and advisers can do is read the polls and make some wildly educated guesses. Few politicians believe they can read and feel the pulse of the electorate.

JW Howard is the exception. But as each day passes, Howard’s fingers seem to be slipping from the electorate’s pulse. And the electorate (or rather, electorates) seem to be slipping from him.

Now is not a good time to be John Howard. Thanks to an Australian Electoral Commission redrawing of federal seat boundaries in NSW and Queensland, Howard’s own seat of Bennelong is beginning to resemble a Labor seat more and more. Howard now faces the prospect of an even bigger challenge from voters who, at state level, have almost always voted Labor.

But it gets worse. Former National Party deputy leader John Anderson is now left without an electorate. He might need to find a seat occupied by a Liberal MP. We might then see the most damaging three-cornered contest in Australian political history.

Howard has Treasurer Peter Costello breathing down his throat. Costello’s recent pronouncements on a redefined federalism effectively require a change in the constitution before they can be implemented. Howard cannot be seen to be opposing Costello on this, though thus far his support has only been lukewarm and limited to the federal administration of ports.

Costello knows his proposals are outlandish. Does he really believe the electorate will support such radical constitutional change? Can someone remember the last time an a referendum ballot for constitutional change got up?

Howard has become less confident than before. The AWB saga has shaken his government’s credibility. The Iraq war has produced its first Australian casualty, and this was obviously botched up by an ideologically confused Defense Minister. Issues Howard used to brush aside as the obsession of left-wing elites have now become sources of irritation.

The apparent double standards of the Howard government are also becoming apparent. Howard always prided himself for standing up for the battlers of Western Sydney. Now those very battlers are deserting him in droves, especially as they can see their basic award entitlements being eroded by the Work Choices revolution.

John Howard always felt he could rely on the electorate to support him against the trendy Fairfax columnists on issues such as asylum seekers and security. But his response to the ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope releasing the Anti-Terrorism Bill was resented by the electorate. After all, what would Howard have to hide from the people?

Then events overseas are also proving a challenge. Here again, the image of “honest John” is being replaced with that of a duplicitous politician prepared even to act against the national interest for the sake of appeasing a foreign power.

Howard’s changes to asylum seeker policy are seen as an attempt to appease Indonesian President Yudhuyono. Howard’s lack of action on Guantanamo detainee David Hicks is seen as supporting President Bush at a time when even the Bush-stacked US Supreme Court are against him.

The prognosis for the Howard government isn’t good. But then, Howard has survived bigger challenges than this. Whilst in opposition, Howard was opposed by a band of fruitcakes led by the ever-irrelevant John Stone who wanted the country turned into a huge Queensland peanut farm. The “Joh for PM” push robbed Howard of his chance to become PM.

Currently, John Stone’s influence is limited to the odd irrelevant and hysterical op-ed in The Australian where he seems to be entertained as the broadsheet’s occasional village idiot. But the challenges facing Howard now extend beyond the white-shoe-wearing section of the electorate.

Work Choices is proving to be an unmitigated disaster. Howard has effectively given the dying Federal ALP leadership some oxygen. The AWA push has been cleverly demonized by the union movement, and Beazley has jumped on the bandwagon.

What makes Beazley’s attack so devastating is that he has an alternative that actually seems to work. His formula satisfies the employer lobby by offering them the chance to enter into individual contracts, with the proviso that they cannot force workers to contract out of minimum award conditions. The common law contract cannot override awards protected by statute.

And with awards now having reduced coverage, Beazley can maintain the Workplace Relations Act reforms whilst restoring award protection. He can now ride on the success wave of all the hard work done by Tony Abbott and other Workplace Relations ministers.

So what should Howard do? Should he fight the next election and potentially lose his seat and/or the national ballot? Or should he retire gracefully and allow Costello, Abbott, Downer, Nelson, Turnbull and all the other aspirants to fight amongst each other for what’s left?