Since leading the Liberal/National Parties to power in the 1996 Federal election, John Howard has concentrated his own political power with the government; and has led his coalition to successive electoral victories in 1998, 2001 and 2004.
He has done this by:
- controlling his ministers: they do not generally say anything, or do anything without John Howard (or his office's) approval. If they make a mistake, they are quickly corrected, and issue a media correction, to make sure everyone knows what they meant to say.
- increasing the powers of his bidders in the Dept of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and in the Office of the Prime Minister. Indeed when members of his government become Minsters, they are usually given a “minder” from one of those two offices. The minder keeps the new Minister in check, and reports to John Howard.
- Parliamentary accountability, let alone responsibility, has diminished. No Prime Minister wants to have the embarrassment of Ministers seen to be in trouble. 1997 was a bad year for his government, and he has worked to avoid accountability since. After taking control of the Senate, he set about to eliminate Senate Committees he did not control, and which might lead to embarrassment.
- He has reneged on policy announced in election campaigns: they were “non-core” promises, he said.
- He has, at every election since 1998, found something to scare voters, or at least manipulate their minds, so that they vote for him. We’ve had children overboard, Tampa, migration, interest rates, Latham: they have all worked for John Howard.
This year, nothing seems to be working: takeover of aboriginal communities, interest rates don’t mean much compared to housing affordability. “Haneef as terrorist” has had a small positive impact in the polls (about 3% swing to the Government), but that was before news of the debacle about the case, and increasing voter concern about Ministerial intervention. Then there is the release of his political biography, with all its detail of dislike between him and Peter Costello, Costello’s belief that he was shafted by John Howard not honouring a commitment to his (Costello) becoming leader and PM, Costello’s poor view of Howard’s time as Treasurer, and his rampant election spending.
John Howard seems to be struggling to find something, *anything*, to make the voters like him. He seems to be losing political control of voters.