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August 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

PM Not As Secure As He Looks

August 21, 2006

by Norman Abjorensen - Canberra Times

Who's afraid of John Howard?

Not as many as you might think. On the surface he looks as if he is sitting pretty and just about unassailable, having put in his place the only potential rival. But a little probing of this seemingly placid picture reveals a swirl of tension and conflict underneath in stark contrast to the confident man who has commanded the heights for more than a decade.

The fact is John Howard is more vulnerable than at any time in his prime- ministership, and the cracks are bound to show.

First, there is his dramatic backdown over the migration Bill which demonstrates that not even John Howard can exert total control over his parliamentary party. It also showed his failure to persuade, no doubt with a range of incentives, the otherwise pliant Family First senator Steve Fielding, to vote for it.

Second, there is the ongoing discomfort in the electorate over the workplace legislation which has seen the Prime Minister move to bolster its selling by appointing Joe Hockey - a fine political salesman - to Team Andrews as a reinforcement. Opinion polls continue to suggest that there is lingering doubt, if not outright fear, in the minds of voters at the changes and what might come next.

Third is the monster let loose within the Liberal Party that is seemingly immune even to the vast moral suasion of the federal leader, as is being seen in the embarrassingly stalled campaign of the talented Pru Goward to win endorsement in the safe NSW state seat of Epping, courtesy of an outrageous branch stack by the party's far right.

John Howard has largely stayed out of the factional turmoil in his home state, but one might expect he has not viewed the ascendance of the right with any great dismay.

But it appears that the right is largely impervious to prime-ministerial suasion. So, does he cut his losses and walk away or risk greater humiliation by intervening and getting a further, and far more direct, rebuff?

This is not just any old pre-selection. It is in his own state of NSW, where he is far and away the most senior member and the candidate is someone who is personally and professionally close to him.

Goward has clearly entered the fray with the Prime Minister's approval and encouragement.

It must not be forgotten that within the Liberal Party, which vests enormous power in its leaders, formally as well as informally, influence within the party remains a critical bellwether of a leader's standing, and it has been a frequent sword on which others have fallen.

Back in the late 1980s when Howard was battling to save his leadership in the wake of the disastrous 1987 campaign, famous now for the brief but thwarted Canberra ambition of the then Queensland premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Howard was also struggling to keep a warring Liberal Party in some semblance of cohesion.

The crunch came when Howard's most bitter critic in the party, Ian Macphee, whom he had sacked as a shadow minister, appealed to Howard to save his pre-selection in Victoria in the name of party unity.

Macphee, a man with a deservedly high public profile and a genuine concern for civil liberties and human rights, made the point that he attracted "soft" voters into the Liberal camp, and if he were dumped, the party would suffer. And former prime minister Malcolm Fraser publicly agreed.

There was little Howard could do other than to try to persuade Macphee's challenger, David Kemp, to run for another seat, but he chose not to and was attacked in the media for a lack of leadership.

In the meantime, Howard was ambushed and dumped by supporters of former leader Andrew Peacock, and one of the attributes pushed in Peacock's favour to the waverers was that he was more "of the Liberal Party" than was Howard. The Macphee issue had damaged him.

The first crucial test of Peacock's leadership, ironically, was the Macphee pre-selection. Macphee was close to Peacock and a fellow Victorian; it was assumed that Peacock, a former state president, would be able to wield far more influence there than the outsider from Sydney, Howard.

It was a telling early blow to Peacock's rebadged leadership when he sought another seat for Macphee and was rebuffed. He had singularly failed to save Macphee. Peacock went on to lose in 1990 and stood down to be replaced by newcomer John Hewson, a big gamble for a party now desperate after four straight election losses.

Hewson, with his Fightback! package, strode boldly on the policy front, but it was on the internal party front that he was found wanting. When the very able and loyal Wal Fife was in trouble in his seat after a redistribution which saw him pitted against a fellow frontbencher, the Nationals' John Sharp, he sought Hewson's help.

Hewson fought hard to save Fife, but stopped short of the public stoush with the Nationals that Fife demanded. In the end Fife resigned, bitter and disappointed, and many within the Liberal Party read into this Hewson's inexperience and lack of influence.

It was the first seed of doubt sown in what was an otherwise promising leadership start.

And it's not just the Goward pre-selection that is worrying Howard. The challenge to Judi Moylan, a modern-day Macphee, in her West Australian seat, represents just the same risk to the party as the challenge to Macphee did.

Will Howard seek to save her or let her fall?

Few people seem to acknowledge how vulnerable Howard is right now. One senior Labor figure told me a couple of weeks ago the party still had a mindset that Howard was superman and had yet to acknowledge the many fronts on which the Prime Minister was fighting.

"We can win the next election, but the party still has not come round to believing that," he said.


Norman Abjorensen teaches politics at the Australian National University.

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