Daily Media Quotation
Tale Of Peter Rabbit
June 3, 2007
by Jason Koutsoukis - The Age
Maybe it's his new haircut, but watching Prime Minister John Howard hunched over his writing pad in the House of Reps last week, he looked like a modern portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge. All that was missing was the green eye shade.
As things lurched from bad to worse in Parliament, and the Coalition sank further in the polls, I thought of how the Prime Minister keeps comparing himself to a clapped-out magician with no tricks left. It's not quite true. For Howard does have one rabbit he can pull out of his top hat: Peter Costello. Then Howard should make like Houdini and disappear.
If the PM doesn't want to go, Costello should force the issue and toss him out. Now, before it really is too late.
Any Liberal who thinks otherwise needs to come down from the top of the Faraway Tree and face reality.
It's been six months since Kevin Rudd became Opposition Leader, and Howard has never looked like getting his measure.
Every time Howard attacks, Rudd's standing in the polls goes up. Every time Rudd attacks, Howard is wounded. When the published opinion polls start showing a 17-point gap on primary vote, as they did last week, that means disaster is certain.
Yet some Liberals are still walking around lost in the Canberra fog, telling themselves that everything is going to be OK.
Here's a sample of some of the responses I got last week talking to Liberal MPs about the state of play.
"Rudd can't win 16 seats, it's just too many," said one. Sure he can. Remember 1996? Howard won 29 seats back then and the polls now are better for Rudd.
"They don't hate us." Well, an overwhelming majority of voters might not hate Howard, but they are certainly sick of him. You don't have to hate someone to vote against them. Just ask former Queensland premier Wayne Goss.
Then there was the cliche of the week: "Mate, the numbers are soft. They're not real."
This weird theory rests on the premise that people are secretly planning to switch back to the Coalition in the nick of time because they "know that elections have consequences and polls don't".
But if the numbers are really so soft, why does Howard look so worried?
The political climate is reminiscent of 1990, when Bob Hawke, a four-time election winner like Howard, was confronted with an ascendant Liberal leader in John Hewson. For whatever reason, Hawke, the most popular political leader ever, had no idea how to combat Hewson. So Labor dumped Hawke for Paul Keating, who knew how to get to Hewson, and Labor went on to win the 1993 election.
"Oh, but it's too late," a Costello loyalist told me last week. Actually, it's not. With six months left in this political year, Costello has plenty of time.
Just as Rudd was able to turn things around quickly, so could Costello.
Let's imagine that Howard acted in the interests of his party this morning and announced to the Liberals' federal council meeting in Sydney that he had decided to step down. The media would go crazy. A deluge of Costello profiles would help present a softer side to the man who has been lumbered with the Treasury portfolio all these years and give the electorate the sense of "change" it has been yearning for.
A month-long Costello honeymoon would be just the circuit-breaker the Liberals need. Then Tanya Costello, a corporate lawyer, could also come out of the shadows. The Costellos are every bit the modern couple that the Rudds are.
Because Costello and Rudd are, in many ways, so similar, if Costello were leader it might cancel out much of Rudd's current appeal.
Rudd and Costello are the same age, they are both committed Christians, they are both economic conservatives, both republicans, are both married to women with high-flying careers of their own, and have the same number of children - who are all roughly the same age.
Some may worry that the polls show Costello is unpopular. But voters may look at Costello differently if he were prime minister, and they also might want to thank him for getting rid of Howard.
Another important question is "can Costello match Rudd in the areas where Rudd is doing well?" He certainly has some things Rudd doesn't.
Such as a sense of humour (has anyone ever seen Rudd really laugh, or crack a joke?). Costello is also a man who makes friends easily, while I'm yet to meet one person who describes themselves as a friend of Rudd's. (A Labor MP told me over dinner last week that he could not name a single friend Rudd has made in the eight years he has been in Parliament.)
There are also signs that Rudd shares some of the characteristics that made Hewson a poor political leader. He is a workaholic with a short temper, he is quick to blame others for mistakes and is apparently unwilling to listen to other points of view.
He also has a tendency to drive his staff too hard. Last week Rudd dumped his new chief of staff Simon Banks and replaced him with veteran Labor insider David Epstein. This just a few weeks after one of Rudd's new economic advisers hit the wall because he couldn't hack the pace.
It is also said that Rudd does not respect the intellect of most of his peers and doesn't mind showing it. Conversely, Rudd doesn't seem to command the sort of respect from the caucus that a good leader should have.
It's possible that if Costello were leader, he might be able to capitalise on these weaknesses and bring them to the surface in a way that Howard hasn't been able to do.
If Howard doesn't step down, Costello should walk into his office sometime soon and announce his intention to challenge. What would happen?
A back of the envelope calculation suggests that Costello now commands 40 votes, perhaps as many as 50, of the 109 member Liberal partyroom.
Yet if the issue were actually forced to a ballot, a narrow win for Howard would be disastrous, leaving the party looking divided. Knowing this, most Liberal MPs would have no choice but to throw their lot in with Costello. After all, he couldn't do any worse than Howard right now and even if Costello lost the election, at least the Libs would know they had tried every option.
As for Costello himself, if he needs persuading then he should think about it purely from the point of view of self-interest.
No political leader in Australian history who has taken over as opposition leader immediately after his party has lost government has gone on to become prime minister. If Howard loses, and Costello becomes opposition leader, the chances are he will never make it.
If the Liberal Party is to win a fifth election, they should grasp the nettle and switch leaders.