Daily Media Quotation
Howard Winged By Friendly Fire
March 20, 2007
by Steve Lewis - The Australian
John Howard is struggling for credibility and to revive the fortunes of a Government resembling one tired and ragged outfit. The Coalition is at its lowest ebb.
The Prime Minister's approval ratings have been in steady decline since January 2005 and the trend line continues to point south.
The more optimistic within the ALP sense the four-time election winner, Labor's great nemesis since 1996, is vulnerable to a change in the electoral atmospherics.
This is the test this year: has the electorate gone permanently soft on Howard? Or is this downturn ephemeral, with normal transmission to resume closer to polling day?
There is a definite testiness in the performance and attitude of Coalition MPs as they confront an alternative government that continues to make impressive headway.
Having arrived back in Australia yesterday, Howard has to turn around this perception. Fast.
Coalition unity, a hallmark of Howard's leadership, is being tested like never before in the wake of Santo Santoro's resignation from the front bench on Friday.
Particular anger is being directed at Tony Abbott, the tough as teak Health Minister who many believe overreached with his critique of Kevin Rudd. Abbott used his regular column in The Sydney Morning Herald last week to cast doubt on Rudd's account of his father's death 39 years ago and accused the Labor leader of creating a misleading "Mr Clean" image.
Because Abbott is such a close ally of the Prime Minister, many Coalition colleagues believed the order to attack must have come from on high. But senior Liberal figures were determined, even desperate, to portray this attack as being the hare-brained idea of Abbott, and his alone.
This criticism of Abbott may be unfair. After all, the Government has to fight in the trenches as it tries to puncture Rudd's high approval ratings. And it was Peter Costello, just as much as Abbott, who used parliament to blast away at Rudd's character.
Still, the internal rancour is emblematic of a Coalition performing badly, behind in the polls and clearly nervous of the future.
Rudd, meanwhile, continues to rate extraordinarily high and for the first time there is belief in Labor ranks that the Coalition's 16-seat majority may be surmountable.
Labor hardheads believe the trend to the ALP is proving resilient, as is the parallel disaffection with Howard and the Coalition. This is more than a honeymoon, is the mantra from the Labor camp.
At the same time, Opposition MPs can hardly believe their luck at the shenanigans that culminated in the resignation of Santoro last Friday. The factional hit man is a despised figure within the Queensland Liberal Party but he is a loyal Howard foot soldier and his loss from the front bench will be felt by a Prime Minister who has to guard against Labor insurgency in the Sunshine State.
For all his troubles, Howard remains convinced that, come election day, voters will have trouble ditching a government that has presided over a decade plus of prosperity. Australia has done well, no doubt about that.
The question to be answered during the remaining months is whether voters believe Rudd and his team can take us to even greater heights.
Labor senses a growing cynicism with the Government and, in particular, Howard.
One private view, shared by a senior Labor figure, is that the community is not buying Howard's big-ticket announcements any more. So January's $10 billion Murray-Darling Basin blueprint, designed to get the Coalition on to the front foot on a crucial election-year issue, sank with little trace.
Labor's spin doctors portray it as a case of too little, too late, with this announcement driven entirely by self-interest.
That's why Labor believes Howard has flicked the switch to negative.
The Government is hell-bent on puncturing the positive picture the electorate has of the Opposition Leader. It wants to cast enough doubts in voters' minds that, come polling day, they will choose to back the incumbent.
Chipping away at Rudd's past associations with disgraced former West Australian premier Brian Burke is part of the strategy, as is Abbott's efforts to cast doubt on what happened on a farm in rural Queensland nearly 40 years ago.
The Government remains determined to pursue this course of action, arguing that Rudd's self-confessed error of judgment makes him unfit for office. The punters, for now, are not buying it.
But neither should anyone be writing off the Coalition yet. With his place in the Liberal pantheon at stake, Howard will fight like a Kilkenny cat to regain the electorate's trust and rein in Labor's commanding lead. The economy remains the Government's electoral trump, but Howard is also determined to challenge Labor on national security.
Tomorrow, he will deliver an important speech outlining his reasons for staying the course in Iraq.
He will draw on his weekend visit to the strife-torn country and his discussions with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to argue that Iraq is making slow progress and that it is not the time to cut and run.
While this argument may have some currency, the Prime Minister is finding it harder to persuade the electorate to come along for the ride. His credentials on national security issues are not what they once were.
To find out why, go back four years, to February 4, 2003, when Howard, struggling to win public opinion, laid out the case for invading Iraq in a lengthy and passionate speech to the parliament. A small chunk of what he said resonates even today.
"The Australian Government knows that Iraq still has chemical and biological weapons and that Iraq wants to develop nuclear weapons." It was a statement with no caveat and it was plain bloody wrong.
While Howard later sought to blame dodgy intelligence, the Australian public knows it was misled. Paul Keating put it succinctly a few weeks back: we were lied to.
The reservations over the reasons for going to war have seeped into a broader public mood of discontent towards Howard and the Government he leads.
He is paying the price for an accumulation of misdeeds.
The Howard prestige is not what it was in 2003, but he has only himself to blame for the community's disenchantment and scepticism.
Come election day, it may very well prove fatal.