18/09/2007 - 22:00

Silence on PM's predicament

18/09/2007 - 22:00


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Regular viewers of the ABC’s Sunday morning program, Insiders, will have noted that two occasional guest commentators – Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Melbourne’s Herald-Sun columnists, Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt, respectively – long ago conceded Labor w

Regular viewers of the ABC’s Sunday morning program, Insiders, will have noted that two occasional guest commentators – Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Melbourne’s Herald-Sun columnists, Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt, respectively – long ago conceded Labor was set to win the coming election.

Messrs Akerman and Bolt, both with a conservative outlook, have a combined million-plus readership of their columns in those News Ltd newspapers.

It’s often claimed Mr Akerman, formerly of Perth, has a pipeline into Kirribilli House, meaning Prime Minister John Howard and his senior spin-doctor speak to him, giving their assessments of the latest developments.

Perhaps that’s what prompted failed Labor leader Mark Latham to remark that “Akerman is not a commentator; he is a de facto press secretary for the Howard government”.

Mr Bolt is also said to have a pipeline, but his is into the office of deputy Liberal leader and treasurer, Peter Costello.

So what these two don’t know about the state of play, mindset and modus operandi at the Howard-Costello government’s highest echelons covers a postage stamp.

Both are seen to be trusted by Howard-Costello insiders, including by Messrs Howard and Costello.

And, as you’d expect, they’re disliked, perhaps envied is a better word, by left-of-centre pro-Labor backers and commentators.

A crucial difference between them is that Mr Bolt for several months now has been calling on Mr Howard to vacate Kirribilli House for Mr Costello, while Mr Akerman has remained silent in this regard.

To make matters worse, Mr Bolt is now joined by another News Ltd conservative commentator, Sydneysider, Janet Albrechtsen, a columnist with The Australian, the woman Mr Latham publicly dubbed a “skanky ho”.

Ms Albrechtsen, a Howard government appointee to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s board, is linked to the conservative-oriented Sydney-based think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies, which, interestingly, is critical of Mr Howard’s 11 years of big taxing and big spending policies.

Last week she wrote: “He has overseen extraordinary economic success, created the conditions for a whole new class of aspirational Australians to prosper from the inevitable forces of globalisation, confronted the scourge of terrorism and has fundamentally realigned the political landscape in this country on so many fronts.

‘Under Howard it became cool to be a conservative.  Each step rankled his opponents as they clung to old orthodoxies. Yet Howard, through sheer dint of character and intellectual fortitude, prevailed.

“But now he must go.

“It’s not easy saying that. The economic numbers certainly do not warrant it. All the numbers are in the right direction.

“Unemployment at historic lows, economic growth at healthy highs.

“Neither does Howard’s character warrant it. He has been a leader in the true sense of the word.

“He has tapped into what the community thinks in a way his predecessor Paul Keating never did.

“He has overseen a period of unity within the federal Liberal Party that has enabled the Howard government to win election after election. Every time he was written off, Howard fought back.

“But after 11 glorious years, this time the bad polls are pointing to something altogether different.”

When two such committed conservative columnists move thus, it’s about as safe as betting on Phar Lap to contend the Howard-Costello government is a goner.

But several other high-profile journalists have also publicly urged the PM to be gone.

The Australian’s Canberra man, Dennis Shanahan, someone with a pipeline into the Howard parliamentary office, put it thus: “Michelle Grattan of The Age, Andrew Bolt of Melbourne’s Herald Sun, Alan Ramsey of The Sydney Morning Herald and Paul Kelly and Janet Albrechtsen of The Australian have all publicly called on Howard to hand over to Costello, consider resigning or predicted a thudding Rudd win.”

He could easily have added David Barnett, one-time Malcolm Fraser media staffer, whose wife, Pru Goward, now a NSW state Liberal MP, but formerly a Howard government women’s affairs boffin, recently wrote in The Canberra Times, that Mr Howard must go.

So what’s left to say, apart from the fact that columnists are an ungrateful lot. Just so many have boarded the dump-Howard bandwagon.

Because of that, State Scene, way out here in Perth and never a recipient of Howard government leaks or largesse, is left looking for an original, perhaps even profound, quote from a great speech to add as a footnote to these calls for Mr Howard to resign.

So, with Mr Howard’s second name being Winston, something from Winston Churchill was seen as apt.

Nothing, however, comes to mind. Mr Howard seems not to be destined for yet another fine hour.

Seemingly more appropriate is Field-Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief, British armies in France, who gave a famous order on April 11 1918 in the face of a massive German frontal onslaught, intended to reach the English Channel.

“There is no other course open to us,” Sir Douglas’s order said.

“Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.”

The reason State Scene has opted for these memorable 38 words is that they best encapsulate Mr Howard’s present parlous position – his back is to the wall as he faces those ongoing Rudd polling results.

Neither Mr Rudd’s disclosed bungles nor anything Mr Howard seems able to manufacture can thwart the Rudd juggernaut.

The Liberals first highlighted Mr Rudd’s three meetings with Brian Burke in Perth; but there was absolutely no impact on the polls.

They then revealed his planned phony Long Tan Anzac dawn service to maximise TV exposure across Australia; still no effect.

Then came wife, Therese, company’s wages imbroglio. Nothing again.

After that followed the leaked revelation of Mr Rudd’s boozy Manhattan strip joint sojourn. Yet, again nothing.

For Rudd-led Labor, it’s always up and up in the polls.

Mr Howard announced that $10 billion Murray-Darling spending spree. No poll impact.

He said he’d rescue molested Aboriginal children across northern Australia. Still nothing.

Tax cuts and $5 billion to Australia’s well-healed universities both bored voters.

Yet, just one year ago, journalists nation-wide were still hailing the PM as a miracle man, someone with a knack to topple all.

Now, one-time journalistic admirers have swung 180 degrees; no longer admiring him but rather urging him to go into everlasting obscurity.

The only encouragement Mr Howard can gain from Sir Douglas’s famous Great War order is that exactly seven months later came victory on that long-awaited 11th hour of 1918’s 11th month, now called Armistice Day.

Unfortunately for Mr Howard, he hasn’t got seven months – not even seven weeks.

But there’s one more, far more, important, factor in Mr Howard’s expected demise that’s not yet been highlighted.

State Scene detects no sense of anguish, worry or concern across WA’s Liberal MP ranks for Mr Howard’s anticipated departure.

Quite the contrary view seems to prevail, with many, perhaps most, of those MPs feeling he’s at long last to get his overdue comeuppance.

Many vividly recall he did nothing for the Court-Barnett Liberals in the lead-up to the February 2001 state election over high petrol prices which were due, in large part, to Canberra’s whopping excise slug on every litre.

Some even feel he left ex-Liberal leader, Colin Barnett, high and dry over that $2 billion – later estimated to be $14 billion – Kimberley-to-Perth open water canal during the February 2004 election.

Others quietly but tenaciously oppose Mr Howard’s obsession, disguised as “aspirational nationalism”, of overriding the states with his Gough Whitlam-like centralism, something that blatantly contravenes long-standing Liberal philosophy.

That, probably more than anything, has left him with minimal support across WA’s Liberal ranks.

Having senior national and capital-city columnists so offside that they say you must resign the prime ministership is bad enough.

But having a sizeable swath of state Liberal MPs seemingly unperturbed by one’s likely demise isn’t something to write home about.

That’s really having your back to the wall.


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