Justin: Politics and Football: Blaming Howard for Playing One To Many Seasons?

Spartacus raises a very good question in “A Question of Leadership”: how much is Saint John Winston Howard to blame for the current state of affairs the Liberal Party finds itself in?

For Spartacus the big “F” was largely for preventing an orderly transition to Peter Costello based on the counterfactual that Costello would have contested the 2007 election and things would be somehow different even though Rudd would still have won, albeit with less seats. I’m not sure of the logic here.

What I can say is politics and leadership determined by a party room vote constitutes a very different dynamic to succession planning in a large public or private company. There are no board of directors for starters. It’s more akin to picking the captain of the footy team amongst the player group.

There are two main reasons why Costello failed to succeed Howard as Prime Minister before the 2007 election and it wasn’t because nobody knew he coveted the job.

First, Howard brought the Liberals back into power after 13 years in the wilderness and the bitter disappointment of Hewson losing the unlosable election of 1993. He backed this up with three further election victories in 1998, 2001 and 2004.

As time went by, older politicians retired, new ones replaced them, and by 2007 the party room was largely comprised of politicians that had only ever known electoral success under the leadership of John Howard. There was simply little appetite for change even as Howard started looking more vulnerable.

In short, Howard built up a record of electoral success and level of trust and loyalty within the Party that was in the main unwavering. That Howard was a tireless campaigner, spoke to the people not down at them, and went out of his way to make himself approachable to voters, party members, colleagues and donors created a somewhat invincibility status.

Returning to the football analogy the situation in 2007 was akin to football club deciding on whether to retire a champion player or give him the benefit of the doubt of one more season. He might not be playing at glory days levels but he is still a very solid and consistent performer.

Extending the life or enforcing the retirement of a champion is a very tough call. The gamble is they can hold good form, but even so at what cost in terms of younger player development, player trades, the draft and so on? Most champion players are ultimately tapped on the shoulder.

The failure to tap Howard on the shoulder (or hard enough) was a collective one with responsibility resting on the more senior Cabinet members, Party President, and other close Howard confidents. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. It is impossible to know, or how hard they pressed the issue if they did in fact raise it. Or perhaps the case for succession was just not that clear cut at the time as it seems with the benefit of hindsight.

This brings me to the second reason a leadership succession failed to materialise prior to 2007, namely Peter Costello failed to present to his colleagues a convincing business case for change.

Costello seemingly believed the Prime Ministership was his right and a done deal between him and Howard existed much like the Kirribilli pact between Hawke and Keating. That alone should have set off a red flag in Costello’s brain but obviously did not.

Consequently, Costello was lazy in prosecuting the case for change and building a base of support behind it. He seemingly lost interest in the intergenerational reports over time that would have enabled him to prosecute a vision under his leadership. He rarely spoke outside his portfolio area despite Treasury offering a lot of latitude. At least not in policy development sense.

His fundraising / networking efforts were low energy and party political. His relationship with the Federal Executive and Federal Secretariat distant at best. In Victoria he was more engaged in factional warfare towards the end of the Howard years with his one-time best mate Kroger.

Despite being the longest serving Treasurer in Australian history the most common question, inside and outside the beltway was: what did Peter Costello stand for? What would a Costello Government mean? This stood in stark contrast to John Howard who was a known quantity whether you liked him or not.

So on the succession front I will give Howard a break and put it down to collective failure on behalf the Liberal Party and for Costello failing to stand up and be counted.

As to whether Howard-Costello have played a hand in the current poor condition of the Liberal Party I would give a qualified yes. Qualified, because going with the football analogy, it is up to every generation to establish its own team, style of play, training standards and match day performance. Blaming the last Premiership Team for future poor recruiting, poor choice of captain and leadership group, no game plan, and match day blow outs is stretching a long bow, especially after a reasonable passage of time.

That said Howard and Costello did leave behind a legacy that included a few reckless and poorly thought out passages of play that have seriously handicapped and divided the current team ever since and made rejuvenation difficult. Those reckless plays are contributing to the Liberals and more importantly Australia’s most pressing problems today. Where I apportion some of the blame on Howard (and Costello) I would highlight:

  1. GST/HFE. Poorly designed it has degenerated into a race to the bottom, penalising state economic development, and disincentivising competition between states to perform better. Un-liberal to its core.
  2. Centralisation of policy and the blow out in the public sector. When the Howard era finally came to an end the APS was 40% bigger than the low point in 1999. Simply put, the Howard Government lost control of the APS. Centralisation simply blurred lines of accountability between the Commonwealth and the States leading to inefficiency, diminished accountability, and greater cost for lesser outcomes. It also led to a steep rise in the power and/or number of undemocratic statutory agencies, which, in line with the public service at large, were captured by the Left on Howard’s watch. Howard should have known big government would lead to institutional capture.
  3. Discretionary grant spending. This exploded in the final Howard term in an attempt to pork barrel his way to a fifth term. However much of it ended up going to left wing fringe groups and organisations, providing a program platform the incoming Labor Government was more than happy to exploit. Enabling the tax payer funding of a plethora of Marxist activists and agitators is an own goal if ever there was one! (This is a partial fail in that Abbott and Turnbull could have taken to them with an axe but didn’t).
  4. NEM and RET. That Howard failed to see how this would be ramped up under a Green-Labor government and the adverse consequences that would follow was negligence of the first order.
  5. Promoting to Turnbull to Cabinet!
  6. Giving Turnbull the Environment portfolio! The start of the climate wars, destruction of our electricity system, and the loss of the productive use of water for agriculture.

In summary, I think Howard and Costello gave the Labor Party a five goal head start upon retirement that was on its way to being clawed back under Abbott albeit unconvincingly. But I don’t think you can blame them for current crop being unable to kick a single goal against a horrible and negative opponent.

I suspect only the wooden spoon, some forced retirements and some priority draft picks will make the Liberal Party competitive again. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can climb back up. Of course in some codes that would mean relegation. Hmmmm . . . . . .

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23 Responses to Justin: Politics and Football: Blaming Howard for Playing One To Many Seasons?

  1. Herodotus

    You’ve just lumped yourself in with all the left media who bagged Costello for onionish things like the smirk, while many of us recognised that he was feared by them and demolished their questions with aplomb, along with those of the hapless opposition of the day.
    Howard’s biggest crime was to encourage Mal while not seeing the logic of taking care of the succession until far too late – he did say in 2007 that he’d hand over to Costello late in the next session, but it should have happened a year more more earlier. That it didn’t gives the clue that the wet left of the party were already wielding influence, which in turn may be the context for Costello not hanging around.
    As for the “reckless spending” accusation, it’s another favourite slur from the leftists school of revising history. What came later made any profligacy of theirs pale into insignificance, and the bottom lines back then seem like an unachievable dream now.

  2. Touché Justin. Touché.

    Yes. Leadership transition in political parties is much different to that in the private sector. But that is a matter of choice and not chance. If Howard was a good leader he would be more concerned about what was to come rather than what passed.

    Your assessment of Costello seems accurate. But despite all these failings as opposition leader, facing the world’s greatest treasurer in Swan and Dr Go Early, Do Hard, Go Household, one might suspect that the school halls, NBN, pink bats and $900 cheques might not have proceeded or have proceeded at the scale they did.

    As for your final point about wooden spoon and forced retirements, this sound very much like the (Professor James) Allen thesis that the only way to fix the Liberals is to punish them into good behaviours. Sounds great on paper, but Spartacus does not believe it will work out that way. This is what Spartacus suspects will happen ….

    Within 100 days of the new Shorten government, there will arrive an armada of refugee boats which will seek to test the resolve of the new government. 80% chance that the Labor Party will crap the bed and let some in or all allow on-shore processing with statutory timelines. This will attract more boats which in turn will re-ignite the immigration debate, blow up the budget and create all sorts of social tensions.

    This will result in a single term Labor Government to be followed by the “Liberal” – National Government of Prime Minister Christopher Pyne who will then nominate Michael Photios to be Governor General.

    And another 10 years of government paralysis will ensue.

  3. Roger W

    So often, Liberals seem to treat politics like a debating society, complete with polite rules, while labor (together with their chorus of ABC/Fairfax/Greens/Getup etc etc) treat it more like a cage fight.
    For example, Julia Banks does an unsupported victim/bully call, yet Liberals do not immediately and incessantly remind the media of Emma Husar, with her multiple supported accusations of real bullying of other female employees.
    There are endless examples like this. Now, I know the ABC etc will not want to run with this, but they could be called out every time a Liberal has air time. Yet the media story is never challenged, the Liberals are forever apologizing.
    Until they grow a pair, they will continue to be losers.

  4. struth

    A good well thought out opinion piece.

    Howard tried to spend his way to a fifth term, when more tax cuts should have occurred.

    Not a true conservative, but compared to the outright traitors that we have today, a bloody saint.

  5. Roger

    the Howard Government lost control of the APS.

    Yes, that was a crucial failure.

    Governments come and go but the mandarin class of the APS is permanent.

    Drain the fetid billabong!

  6. Iampeter

    At least Spartacus tried to talk a bit about politics (and failed) in his article.
    This piece doesn’t even bother and doubles down on talking about trivial technicalities that don’t have anything to do with politics.
    The political issues with the Howard government was its lack of ideas and implementation of far left legislation previously unheard of in this country. For example, when the Howard gov cooked up the RET Howard didn’t “failed to see how this would be ramped up under a Green-Labor government and the adverse consequences” but he implemented Green-Labor policy. In fact he led the way on this stuff before Labor even had policies in this area, thus moving the conservative movment, that not only failed to address this and throw him out of the movement, but celebrates this leftist even to this day, further left than Labor.
    THIS is the issue with the Howard government and not understanding this and talking about irrelevant randomness like this article is the issue with the conservative movement in general.

  7. 3. Discretionary grant spending.

    Justin, I haven’t heard of this before, but I find it intriguing. Can you provide some examples of where you would cut please?

  8. candy

    Sending the troops to Iraq was a big part of his downfall. Has that ever made sense.

  9. MichelLasouris

    Hmmmm. I dunno…. equating politics ( Australian style) with a sporting code ( and one practiced only in Australia and nowhere else) does really place this great country way down in the International league of Global significance, doesn’t it?

  10. What Struth said. Mr Howard convinced me to join the LDP.

  11. WolfmanOz

    I agree with Spartacus re the boats arriving not long into Shorten’s term.

    It will be a very sharp and quick reminder to the electorate of the RGR fiasco, and with the growing resentment with the increasing amounts of legal immigration, it will become the issue again.

  12. criss cross

    Roger W at 9.24am

    Excellent point.
    That’s another reason why T.Abbott should be on the front bench; he is the Libs’ most formidable attack dog. Every single day, Australians should hear what AWU Shorten did to blue collar pay packets. Every day.

  13. struth

    but celebrates this leftist even to this day, further left than Labor.



  14. Habib

    Howard is to blame for much of what makes this place an absolute reeking toilet, awash is statist shit, debt and executive over-reach. From entrenching welfare to encouraging Turnbull to stay to stealing private property and the right and ability to defend oneself and one’s property, i have no idea why that odious little prick is looked upon with anything other than disgust and loathing. So he was an improvement on Keating. A kidney stone would’ve been a bigger one.

  15. Habib

    Justin, I haven’t heard of this before, but I find it intriguing. Can you provide some examples of where you would cut please? All of it?

  16. H B Bear

    The failure to tap Howard on the shoulder (or hard enough) was a collective one with responsibility resting on the more senior Cabinet members, Party President, and other close Howard confidents. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. It is impossible to know, or how hard they pressed the issue if they did in fact raise it.

    Downer is on the record as saying he did in fact lead a delegation that told the Father of Middle Class Welfare that his time was up. This was after the FMCW had spouted, “I will remain leader so long as the Lieboral Party want me to remain” as a mantra to fend off potential challengers. The FMCW and Hyacinth Bucket refused to go because it would look as if he was not prepared to meet the new challenge of KRudd, who was knocking him around like an old punch-drunk fighter. Costello refused to challenge at that late stage as he figured that this would be too damaging to the Lieborals who were 12 to 18 months out from an election.

    So yes, the FMCW bears a significant part of the blame for where the Lieborals are now. Not forgetting he and Artie Sinodinos encouraged Lord Waffles to remain in the party after an earlier dummy spit.

  17. Buccaneer

    A well thought out piece with some very valid points, however, the current malaise with the libs entirely falls at the feet of the professional lobbyist Photios and his mates who have pulled every trick in the book to take power and keep it.
    The unedifying spectacle of a clearly ousted PM making new rules, publishing lists of MPs against him and scrutinising signatures to delay and secure numbers was only a small taste of the lengths these people have been going to behind the scenes.

  18. H B Bear

    Was there a problem with Costello being a Victoriastani? The Lieboral Party is now a plaything of the NSW Lieboral branch which is a problem because they aren’t very good at politics.

  19. DaveR

    John Howard is probably the best Australian Prime Minister I have experienced over my lifetime.

    He is also the Prime Minister who made the biggest political mistake I have ever seen, in not appointing Costello in an orderly succession. (Turnbull’s self importance now running second).

    That mistake led to years of instability in both the Liberal and Labor parties, and major problems for Australia along the way. Its still being played out today.

    Perhaps if Costello was pm for a few terms we would not have had Rudd/Gillard, and Turnbull would have been turned away for the Liberals.

  20. Dauf

    and what was one of the main reasons Costello gave for not hanging around?
    ….Not putting up with the white-anting of malcolm. Seems to be the pattern of his life. Incapable of doing anything as part of a team and only looking for personal benefit/recognition…must have pretty disturbed inner being

  21. Herodotus

    and what was one of the main reasons Costello gave for not hanging around?
    Can you give us a link to that, Daufus?
    Costello was no marshmallow.

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