SYDNEY — Instead of the usual rancorous Canberra power-play politics, Prime Minister John Howard has lately been all smiles as guest of honor at a series of dinners across Australia.
There have been endless speeches of praise from the Liberal-National Coalition faithful, his every word quoted as a pointer to why Australia is enjoying unprecedented progress under a conservative government, or why, after four terms in power, the Howard magic still works with Aussie voters.
Only now, after weeks of gushing praise, cynical Canberra watchers are starting to ask: How much longer can he last? Big money is being bet — this being a nation of bettors — on his resignation next January. That’s time enough, the punters reckon, for a new prime minister to get into stride and win a November 2007 election.
The supremely self-disciplined former lawyer just keeps smiling. For a quarter-century he has watched too many Labor governments come and go in Canberra and survived too many back-stabbings from Liberal Party colleagues to show his cards. And that, for the time being, is how the electorate likes it.
Besides, even at age 66, he enjoys being the country’s 25th prime minister. He’s fit, thanks to good genes and a disciplined lifestyle that includes jogs at the crack of dawn. Howard learned his life-is-real discipline early in life. At weekends as a teenager, he pumped gas at his father’s service station in the lower middle class Sydney suburban of Dulwich Hill. Aways a keen speaker, he took to debating at Sydney University while studying law and followed the family’s political bent toward individual initiative and private enterprise.
“I guess working for yourself, for private enterprise, and not working for the government, was something I was brought up to believe in,” he recently explained. “The idea that life is not a five-days-a-week existence was with me at a very early stage.”
Reform of union domination in the workplace became Howard’s early goal after he ended Labor’s 13 years of controversial power during a period of high unemployment and inflation. Having freed up the labor market — along with economy strictures — he was careful to avoid during the subsequent economic boom of following the U.S. lead of total labor-market deregulation.
“How low is the American minimum wage?” he cautions. “I have regularly said the Americans’ approach to welfare and industrial relations is too harsh. You can have an enterprise culture without the harshness of the American system.”
But when it comes to the big picture of global strategies, the Howard line is remarkably Washington aligned. The long U.S.-Australia alliance made it a given that Canberra would support U.S. President George W. Bush’s war against world terrorism. Howard committed troops to Afghanistan soon after 9/11 and continues to station forces in Iraq.
Perversely, one scandal dogging the Howard government today involves wheat sales to Iraq. The Volker U.N. inquiry revealed that the Australian export monopoly, named AWB, paid $300 million into then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s coffers through the U.N. oil-for-food program. An inquiry commission sitting in Sydney is now finding horrific incompetence within the AWB. The fallout must inevitably be the AWB’s loss of monopoly powers, later to affect such wheat markets as Japan.
An avid cricketer, Howard will score highly with sport-mad Australians in coming weeks as he watches the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Nothing like international sport will boost the prime minister’s sportsman image — not to mention boomtown Melbourne’s income — during the games to be attended by Queen Elizabeth II.
A family-like relationship between Australia and the so-called Mother Country has warmed under Howard’s many visits to London.
Equally, he is at home in Tokyo, where he enjoys a good rapport with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Whether he can swing a free-trade agreement with Japan — as he has with the U.S., Singapore and Thailand — remains on the wish list. Closer may be a deal with China, whose multibillion dollar imports of Australian energy and minerals are putting Japan’s purchases a couple of generations ago in the shade.
Australia’s most successful prime minister: That is how respondents to a recent Newspoll rated Howard. He has outperformed the longest-serving prime minister, Robert Menzies, who founded the Liberal Party and remains Howard’s hero. He has out-served and maintained his popularity longer than Labor’s longest-serving prime minister, Bob Hawke. And he has survived more vitriol poured over him than any prime minister since the cranky Billy Hughes.
Veteran Howard watcher Dennis Shanahan, political editor of The Australian, sees John Howards. The caricature one of his opponents shows a divisive leader, a master of poll-driven wedge politics, a 1950s conservative out of touch with young Australia. The second is a far more complex character, one the voters trust to be a prudent lawmaker and ready to admit mistakes.
Such is his instinctive privacy, however, nobody really knows the real man. Maybe not even his loyal, charming and equally private wife, Jeanette. Still, nobody claims he doesn’t always try hard to know the Aussie psyche and give voters something close to what they say they want. And that’s why voters have given him the nod four times.
Will he reign much longer? Naturally, he isn’t saying; many others are, though. A January resignation would give his anointed successor, Peter Costello, time to consolidate a power base.
Melbourne-based Costello makes no secret of wanting the top job. But how do you elbow aside a proven vote-getter? As treasurer for 10 years, Costello has guided a period of unprecedented economic success. He has presided over policies leading to Australia becoming free of government debt.
Under his steady-as-she-goes policies, Australians have experienced their greatest accumulation of personal wealth — and their highest debt.
Still, voters don’t warm to this money man. They remember when he brought in a new tax, a consumer tax on goods and services, and forget how successfully it replaced unfair import duties. Maybe he will earn lots of kudos in May by bringing in a budget that lowers taxation rates, as everyone is demanding.
But don’t bank on Howard rolling over any day soon. And that’s OK with the average voter. While the going is great, Australians will stick with him. Besides, all the polls show voters are not yet ready for the Opposition’s Labor Party, still less for its leader, Kim Beazley.
For a clue, read Howard’s lips: “I still get up in the morning keen to get to work and do things. I never tire of meeting people. It’s the best part of the job.”
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