John Howard does not give a hoot about his state colleagues. It is a political fact now that Howard is an expert at getting himself re-elected, as many column centimetres in the opinion pages attest, but nothing illustrates the fact more than his willingness to sacrifice the state Liberals to achieve his ends.
Howard has probably never really cared about state party politics, but at least when he became Prime Minister in 1996 he gave them some lip service. After all, he would send his campaign guru, Lynton Crosby, in to do a post mortem after each state opposition election failure. But they would not listen and kept right on losing. The resulting wall to wall Labor governments seems to have convinced him that state Liberals are not worth worrying about.
One feature of John Howard’s career is that he learns as he goes. For instance he quickly and quietly jettisoned his charter of ministerial responsibility when he realised that electors just did not care enough about children overboard or rorted grant programs - just as long as the borders were secure and local projects got funded. Now he has learned that the state Liberals are more of a liability than a help, he has no qualms about running right over them if it suits his purposes. Three recent examples illustrate this point.
The first is Howard’s rampant push to dismantle federalism. Current policies to nationalise education standards, vocational training, healthcare provisions and industrial relations - to name just a few - strike at the heart of traditional Liberal party values and leave the state parties out on a limb. So what can they do? While the Labor premiers get mileage out of banging the state’s rights drum and engaging in some good old Canberra bashing, the Liberal opposition leaders are marginalised out of the debate. If they support Howard they look like traitors to their state, and if they support the premier, well, how can they do that? Liberal oppositions must be in dread about what is going to happen after July 1 when Howard gets control of the Senate. He will be able to give his centralist policies full throttle which can only mean continuing heartache for the state parties.
The second is Howard’s abandonment of Western Australia’s Colin Barnett during the state’s recent election. Certainly Barnett’s billion dollar canal idea was so stupid that it probably doomed his election chances the moment it was released, but he could have done without Howard and Costello’s “help”. Howard damned it with faint praise while Costello was much less subtle.
But that was fairly late in the campaign. One would have thought the Liberal party machine, faced with a state Labor government on the nose and ripe for defeat, would have combined state and federal resources to defeat their ideological enemy. Wheel out the big cannon in the most successful Liberal leader since Menzies? Let Barnett bask in the great man’s glory? Not for this campaign. Whether at Barnett’s instigation or Howard’s, the PM stayed right away only to surface at the death to nail the coffin shut on the canal proposal. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Howard considered Barnett a goner from day one and in no way wanted to be tarred with the loser brush.
The third is Howard’s extraordinary performance over the forestry debate in Tasmania, firstly during the federal election campaign and now following the $250 million deal struck with the state Labor government to protect 200,000 hectares of rainforest, including the mythical Tarkine. Nothing illustrates Howard’s self-serving nature and his disregard for state Liberals than his political plays over Tasmanian forestry.
Those from the mainland seem to think of Tasmania in rather quaint terms - a cross between a museum and a national park that is good for a five day fly-drive holiday when “we get the chance”. The majority of Tasmanians however, tend towards working class conservative and are sick and tired of the forestry debate. Most support some sort of forestry industry but have lingering doubts about the clear felling of old growth forests and the use of 1080 poisoning. But in general, they are just too conservative to support the Greens.
Up until now, state Labor and Liberals have been in lock-step on forestry. Hard nosed premier Paul Lennon is a staunch supporter of the industry and opposition leader Rene Hidding has scarcely uttered a word in contradiction. Hidding no doubt has thought that mirroring Labor’s forestry stance neutralises it as an issue for the 85 per cent of electors that vote for one major party or the other. But now, courtesy of Howard, Lennon has a position on forestry that paints him as the saviour of both the industry and the forests. The deal creates 1,000 new jobs, protects 200,000 hectares of forests including the Tarkine, injects $250 million into the Tasmanian economy, and phases out the use of 1080.
Is this the forest compromise Tasmanians have been yearning for? Probably not, as these types of deals tend to unwind over time as the realities of putting them into practice never match the hype of the promises. But for the moment it is a piece of political genius for Howard and a godsend to Lennon. For Howard it cements his hero status in suburban and rural Tasmania and confirms the vote choice for thousands of normally staunch Labor Bass and Braddon voters who delivered the seats to Liberal at the last election. For Lennon it helps him build an image of being his own man creating his own vision of Tasmania, after 12 months of having to try and establish himself in the shadow of the late populist premier, Jim Bacon.
But for Rene Hidding it is a disaster. The three Tasmanian dailies have fawned all over Howard and Lennon with front page pictures of the two beaming heroes shaking hands and back slapping, while inside multi-page features have talked up the positives. Predictably the only dissenting voice has come from the Greens, but if the mainstream public buy this package then the Greens will look like perennial carpers who are just never going to be happy. Hidding can’t attack the deal, how can he knock back $250 million, and anyway, Lennon has been careful to get the main industry pressure groups, in particular the powerful Timber Communities Australia, on-side prior to the announcement.
Lennon delivered the state budget on May 19. He had plenty of cash to spend on health and community services, and to do some old fashioned pork barrelling in the suburbs. He does not have to call an election until September 2006, but if this forestry deal stays positive in the voters’ minds, and his budget gets a good wrap, he would be severely tempted to go to the polls this September instead of next. Although the Liberals under Hidding have made some inroads into Labor’s big opinion poll lead, Lennon knows that when it comes to voting electors are largely self-serving. A strong economy, plenty of jobs and now maybe a way forward in the forestry debate, should just about snuff out any Liberal challenge.
Up until Colin Barnett got defeated, Rene Hidding made no secret of the fact that he took a great interest in Barnett’s tactics in opposition. Hidding respected Barnett’s ability to develop policy alternatives and envied his dominant position in the opinion polls. During the election campaign Hidding even had his media advisor in Perth watch and learn at close quarters. He need not have bothered. Barnett turned out to be a dud with no idea of winning from opposition.
Hidding may have learned one lesson, though. He’ll be on his own whenever the election gets called. With Lennon running on a platform created by John Howard there will be no help coming from that quarter for the state Liberals.