27 July 2007

The political go bag

I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.

- Shakespeare Macbeth Act III, Sc. IV

It used to be that government ministers would resign if they felt compelled to act against what they felt to be sound policy. No more: government ministers add "never resign" to Disraeli's old saw about not complaining or explaining.

People who occupy these offices are subject to a variety of intense pressures to act one way or another, and what they refuse to do can be as important as what they do achieve. Events occur that not even the experts predict - these can reveal the character of those who make the decisions. If they go well, opportunist politicians will not hesistate to take credit for them, while if they go badly there will be complaints of ill-fortune and -treatment.

Recently, Treasurer Peter Costello has been quoted complaining that he had done things he hadn't wanted to do. He had also commented on Howard's position as Fraser's Treasurer; it took Howard years to convince economic reformers that he was one of them, not always convincingly it seems. Andrew Norton examines discussion of Costello's legacy and how it coulda/woulda/shoulda been, but considering Costello, Howard and other ministers it leads to a wider question: why do people seek public office?

At some point, Peter Costello will have to differentiate himself from John Howard. How on earth will he do that? Where is the point where he stared Howard down? Where are the long and dearly held policy initiatives that Costello persuaded others to adopt? What will be in Costello's, and the Liberal Party's, political go bag?

In this interview, we saw Tony Abbott doing his impression of a man with his testicles in a vice. He's run out of ideas and cannot defend either of the protagonists who compete for credit in achieving whatever the government has achieved - yet by not defending either, or both, he is acutely aware that he has no case to make as to why he and his should remain in government.

It would seem that the robustness of the economy will merely minimise the losses that the Coalition will suffer at the coming election, rather than be the all-conquering factor they are perceived to have been - or was it?

  • In 1996, the economy was recovering under Keating, albeit too slowly, and like Rudd today all Howard offered was forward momentum and the excision of everything you hate about the incumbent.

  • In 1998 the main economic achievements were offshore, the proposed GST was lied about, and Labor got 51% of the vote.

  • In 2001 and 2004, the issue was national security: first bin Laden and the Tampa, then Mark Latham

This is a government running out of steam; and in a dynamic society such as ours, out of steam is out of time. The question as to what the Liberals take out of this experience and what they leave behind is of vital importance to those of us who are not Howard Liberals, and to the Party's ability to form government at anything above the municipal level into the future.

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