Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard excused himself in Nigeria while his former party colleagues forensically dissected his election defeat on ABC’s Four Corners last night. Howard launched his career on the international speaker circuit at Nigeria's biggest awards ceremony in the capital, Lagos, at the weekend. Howard steered clear of Australian domestic politics and instead spoke about Nigerian economic reform and its need to seek more foreign investment. It is likely Howard was paid in the region of $40,000 for this new and blander version of the Nigerian phishing scam.
While his speech content was uncontentious, the same could not be said for the swag of senior Liberals who bared their souls about their defeat on national television last night. The program entitled “Howard’s End” attracted 1.15 million viewers to the national broadcaster. The program featured significant interviews from key players such as Arthur Sinodinos, Nick Minchin, Peter Costello, Alexander Downer, John Abbott, Joe Hockey but not from Howard himself who has not spoken to an Australian media outlet since his defeat.
The program began with how Howard ascended to the leadership in 1994. Alexander Downer was opposition leader with Costello as his deputy. Downer was in freefall as leader and Liberal powerbroker Ian McLachlan set up a secret meeting to replace him. In the meeting were three people, McLachlan, Costello and John Howard. In this meeting Howard asked Costello not to nominate so Howard could be elected unopposed. Both McLachlan and Costello say Howard committed to serving only one and half terms. A reluctant Costello agreed knowing he did not have the numbers to win anyway. Costello asked McLachlan to document the undertaking about “one and half terms” on a piece of paper.
Eight weeks later in early 1995, Howard ascended to the leadership unopposed with Costello continuing as deputy. This would be the team that would vanquish Paul Keating in 1996 and go on to win four successive elections. By 2006 Howard was in power for ten years and was the second longest ever Australian leader behind Robert Menzies. Howard is at the peak of his power and the “one and half terms” idea has seemingly been forgotten. The one time Howard had obliquely mentioned retirement was in 2000 on his 61st birthday when he said nothing lasts forever and he would consider his position on his 64th birthday.
He turned 64 in June 2003 and decided to stay on despite Costello’s prompting. By 2006 Howard was now 67 and talk of change was in the air. Chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos said the speculation grew as the 10th anniversary approached. But Andrew Robb said it was not the sort of thing people would raise when talking to the PM. Senate leader Nick Minchin knew that Howard’s time was nearly up and he got Sinodinos and foreign minister Alexander Downer to sound out the retirement on the 10th anniversary which, Minchin thought, was the ideal time for Howard to go out on top. Costello was aware of Minchin’s plan. Both men conveyed their views but Howard never followed the matter up with Minchin and there the matter died.
Sinodinos said Howard’s attitude was he wanted to think it through. However he said that process was truncated by the McLachlan affair. In July 2006 McLachlan finally released the contents of the “one and half terms” piece of paper to the media. The note mentioned that a voluntary “undertaking” had been given. Howard and Costello subsequently gave differing accounts of the meeting, with the obvious imputation that at least one of them was lying. Minchin said the impact of the public spat was “devastating”.
Two days later Howard told the media “it was the will of the party” that was paramount. In July he announced he was staying on until after the next election. Costello told Four Corners that the McLachlan affair was irrelevant and that Howard never intended in standing down. But Downer said that had 1996 been a controversy free year, Howard would have retired. Costello said the impression he had was quite the opposite. But in any case Costello faced the same problem he always had – Howard had the party numbers. Costello conceded defeat and publicly proclaimed his loyalty to the team. He said the problem was the number of MPs that had been elected since 1996 who only knew Howard as leader. To them, said Costello, the Liberal Party WAS Howard. Liberal Senator Judith Troeth said Costello’s problem was that never cultivated the party backbench which made him arrogant and unpopular.
In December 2006, the Liberals had new problem: Kevin Rudd. Rudd came to the Labor leadership with a mandate for new leadership. The Liberals didn’t panic, they had seen off Mark Latham in 2004 and felt they could see off the new boy. But from the time Rudd became leader, there were 50 polls all of which pointed to a Labor victory. John Abbott said the Liberals could not counter this “fresh face” strategy; Costello was too associated with Howard, who anyway, according to Abbott, was the Libs best asset.
Labor homed in on the unpopular Government workplace relations law with the unions running effective scare ads. Joe Hockey was appointed Workplace Relations Minister with a mandate to fix the problem. In the most remarkable admission of the program, Hockey told Four Corners that “many ministers in cabinet” were not aware that people could be worse off under WorkChoices. Hockey moved to bring in the Fairness Test. Robb said this failure was proof the government were no long listening to “the Howard battlers, the people who put us there in the first place”.
Failure to sign Kyoto was another disaster for the government in 2007. Costello said the government should have ratified it “many years earlier”. Abbott said Howard’s rigid position on the “totemic issue” of Kyoto didn’t help the party. In September, Howard hosted the APEC summit in Sydney. On the eve of the summit, a newspoll showed an 18 per cent 2PP lead to Labor. This was a devastating poll that made the leadership “jumpy”. While Howard was busy hosting international presidents, he began to finally believe he would lose the election.
Howard asked Downer to sound out the opinion of the other cabinet members whether they would be better off changing leaders. Downer invited eight cabinet colleagues to discuss the matter: Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Philip Ruddock, Chris Ellison, Ian Macfarlane, Kevin Andrews and Joe Hockey. Most were unaware of Howard’s thoughts. Hockey said he thought the leadership had been sorted a year ago and he was stunned Howard himself was re-opening it. The view of the meeting was that if Howard didn’t think he could win, he should step aside.
The following morning, Downer reported back to Howard about the pessimistic mood of the meeting and the view of the majority was that Howard should quit. Later Downer told Costello he should get ready for leadership. Downer then told the cabinet that anyone who thought Howard should go, should tell the PM. Joe Hockey told Four Corners he rang Howard to tell him he should quit. Howard said he appreciated Hockey’s honesty but made no commitments. Downer then told Howard he should leave voluntarily. But Howard took the view he would only leave if told to do so by his colleagues. But those colleagues in the main felt doing that would be an electoral disaster.
For Andrew Robb, it was unfortunate Howard wasn’t told he should go. But for Hockey, a “knifing” of John Howard would have meant the Liberals would have been reduced to a small rump in parliament. Because the conditions were not agreed, Howard decided to stay on and contest the 2007 election. Something Costello thought he always was going to do anyway. Howard went on A Current Affair to say he had talked the matter through with his family and said “they want me to continue”. Hockey said he was disappointed that Howard had earlier said he would always stay as long as the party wanted him and “now the formula had changed”.
According to Downer, Howard did not want to look like a coward, and besides, had higher personal approval ratings than Costello. Two months later, Howard announced the election and the entire team got behind him. Nothing changed during the six week campaign and Howard was voted out of office both as PM and MP on 24 November. Costello refused the opposition leadership the following day. The Liberals would never find out what changing the leadership would have meant. According to Costello supporter Christopher Pyne “the public gave Labor the biggest swing they had ever had into government and that was the final say on who was right about that”. According to Four Corners, Howard loved the job too much to quit.