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February 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Little To Stop Howard

February 25, 2006

by Shaun Carney - The Age

Bill Clinton made a simple but all-too-easily forgotten point during his 90-minute appearance at a business forum in Melbourne on Thursday: democracy was about more than just majority rule, it was also about minority rights, about recognising and reinforcing limits to the abuse of power.

Clinton's talk and the subsequent question-and-answer session ranged from the bin Laden family to global warming to the frightening implications of America's current fiscal policies to personal identity and beyond. A good deal of it was mesmerising, a synthesis of many of the issues confronting the world and the political challenges they pose.

It demonstrated yet again that all too often even the most gifted politicians secure their wisdom too late, when their power is gone. John Howard, of course, enjoys more power now, during his fourth term, than ever and appears to be some way short of being an ex-politician. Unless his Liberal deputy, Peter Costello, does something to disturb his equilibrium, Howard could well sail on as Prime Minister for another five years or more; at this stage, a 2007 election victory seems almost a foregone conclusion.

The imminent 10th anniversary of the election of the first Howard Government does make you wonder how the Prime Minister will come to reflect on his time in office when he eventually wanders off into the post-political twilight.

They call economics the dismal science. Political analysis does not even pretend to have any science about it. A lot of politics is about luck, about events beyond your control, and a good deal of it is also about the quality and effectiveness of your opponents.

Ultimately, politics is also a battle of wits. Can you exploit this opportunity, this little bit of luck to out-position your opponent and secure a more lasting advantage? That's where cunning, guile, smarts - call it what you like - come into play.

During his 10 years as Prime Minister, one of John Howard's greatest achievements has been to make the most of his opponents on the Labor side. For most of the time, most of the Labor team seems to have shown up simply in order for the political game to keep going; to be there to kick the ball back in after the Government has scored a behind or when it's gone out on the full.

The calculus that operated almost since Federation - that Labor pushed the policy boundaries and spent brief periods in office before flaming out, while the conservatives stood pat, waiting to be called back into service to return a steady hand to the tiller - is no longer appropriate.

Labor played its own part in breaking that convention by winning five elections in a row in the '80s and early '90s. Its 13 years in office were way beyond anything it had managed before and it was a period of extensive legislative action, recasting the economy, the financial system, the currency, the public service, the unions, environmental policies and the health system.

When Labor lost office in 1996, the new leader, Kim Beazley, who had been deputy prime minister in the Keating government's last days, appeared set to maintain the policy energy that had marked the ALP's years of incumbency. His first instructions to the caucus as leader were not to indulge in tearing away at Labor's performance in its final, failing term.

Beazley told his MPs it was important to remain proud of what Labor had achieved in office and that they should refrain from a post-election character assassination of Keating. It was a wise and, to some degree, courageous thing to say, because there were certainly quite a few people in the caucus and around the party who were keen to stick the knife into the man who had only three years earlier led them to victory in the supposedly unwinnable 1993 election.

As Beazley was urging Labor not to drop its head, Howard and Costello were performing the ritual newly elected government dance entitled "The Finances Are Much Worse Than We Were Told". Their description of "Beazley's Black Hole" was met, curiously, by only a muted response from Beazley.

The "Beazley's Black Hole" play was one of Howard and Costello's smartest moves. Beazley's failure to repudiate it was probably his dumbest. As a consequence, Labor's reputation as an economic manager, which was strong when it lost office, has fallen away to the point where at the last election it did not even bother to try to compete with the Coalition for credibility on the issue.

Fortunately for Howard and the Coalition generally, most of Labor's 10 years in Opposition have been marked by a steady retreat on profound issues of difference. In Howard's first term, when his hold on office was shaky, he was regularly criticised, even lampooned, for being a "poll-driven" Prime Minister, a leader who rarely made a move without checking the polls.

You don't hear that criticism any more, and it's not just because he has won four successive elections, it's because the Labor Party has become every bit as poll-driven as the Government. It's lucky for the ACTU that Labor's polling suggests the Government's IR changes are largely unwelcome among voters. If it didn't, you have to wonder if Beazley would have run as hard on the issue as he did in the second half of last year.

Labor, when it was in office, believed that it was in some way outwitting the Liberals by pursuing economic reforms and bedding down various neoliberal policy settings, coupled with a social safety net. It also expected to reap a political dividend for its hard work. It discovered after losing office that its hard work in government counted for little.

The plaudits for Australia's prosperity have all gone to Howard and Costello, thus Labor has found itself locked into a cycle in which it has tried to stay close to Howard on a whole raft of issues - as Beazley put it memorably in 2001, you could not squeeze a cigarette paper between the stances of the Labor Party and the Government on border control and terrorism.

In areas where Howard has chosen to go beyond Labor's existing policies, such as national security, civil rights, reciprocal rights for welfare payments and consumption taxes, Labor has ended up conceding to him. So the ground under Labor's feet has been constantly eroded, while Howard's turf has flourished and expanded.

Howard, as a lifetime conservative, obviously loves the Liberal Party. But after all the favours they have done him, when he looks across at his Labor opponents, and especially the leadership, they must warm his heart too.

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