Wednesday, July 12, 2006

POLITICS: A Matter of Distrust

John Howard’s repeated electoral mantra has been based on trust.

He went to the last election asking voters to trust him and his government to keep interest rates down, to secure the nation and its borders against terrorism and queue-jumpers, to manage the economy.

At the heart of this trust involved trusting his ministers to perform. The most important minister in this regard was and remains the Treasurer.

Howard has been able to weather repeated political storms – children overboard, AWB and much more. The electorate was prepared to overlook these scandals provided the economy was strong. Howard’s formula of trust depended on it.

Now, the man Howard relies on to manage the economy has effectively called him a liar. Peter Costello claims John Howard made a commitment in 1994, some 12 years ago and around 18 months following Paul Keating’s “victory for the true believers”.

At the time, the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party was in the political wilderness. John Hewson was failing in his attempts to transform himself into a small “l” liberal. His rival Bronwyn Bishop was busily slipping on her own verbal banana peels, her leadership ambitions in tatters.

The party looked to a young team, led by Alexander Downer and Peter Costello. The pair released a policy platform described as “The Things That Matter”.

Downer’s leadership was still-born thanks to an almost unbelievable case of foot-in-mouth disease. Downer described the Liberal policy on domestic violence as “the things that batter”. It was meant to be a joke. For the Federal Liberal Party’s political fortunes, it was no laughing matter.

By now, the Liberals were desperate and effectively leaderless. Powerbrokers looked toward drafting former leader and then-IR spokesman John Howard to the leadership. Howard was among the most experienced MP’s, having been both a senior government minister and shadow minister. He was also a formidable parliamentary debater, one of the few Coalition MP’s who could successfully intimidate Keating.

It is in this context that the alleged meeting was held in December 1994. Howard claims this meeting was one of a number of meetings held to discuss the vexed issue of leadership in the run-up to the 1996 election. He thereby claims that the discussion was merely a discussion, not a final deal.

One of Howard’s most loyal supporters, former National Farmers’ Federation head and former Minister Ian McLaughlan, disagrees. He has produced his own record, a contemporaneous note confirming the outcome of the discussion.

Howard agreed to take on the mantle of leadership. He agreed to stay for a fixed time, following which the leadership would be passed on to Peter Costello in time to enable him to maximize his chances of winning voter approval.

Who is to be believed? Was there really a deal? Or was it just brainstorming about hypotheticals?

The answer to this question is more than likely another question: who cares? Been accused by his own deputy of lying, Howard’s continued leadership of the Parliamentary Party is fast becoming untenable.

Howard might have the numbers today. His backbenchers might feel more comfortable presently with him leading the Party at the next election. But Howard’s trustworthiness has taken a mortal blow.

Costello doesn’t look like backing down. His ambition makes him almost sound like a drama queen, preferring the Coalition to lose the next election than be deprived of leadership.

Unless the leadership issue is dealt with, the Coalition looks almost certain to handing Beazley victory in a plate. It certainly isn’t a victory Beazley will have earned.