Three Monkeys Online

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Dusting off the Dancing Metaphors – Leadership struggles down under

'Leadership' was the issue of the last month in Australian politics. Peter Costello, the treasurer and heir apparent in the ten-year old conservative government finally publicized the leadership tensions that had long been a part of government politics behind the scenes. Seizing on the third party confirmation of a leadership handover 'undertaking' made over a decade ago in opposition, Peter Costello decided that he had been patient enough. Previously both the treasurer and the prime minister had denied anything so grubby as a secret deal on the leadership. Now the treasurer confirmed that, in fact, John Howard (then a failed former leader), hoping for an unencumbered ascent to the leadership of the Liberal party had undertaken to serve only one and a half terms should he be elected prime minister. Was it a deal? We could infer what we liked, Peter had simply told the truth. Was he accusing the prime minister of lying? He wasn't accusing anybody of anything, he was simply telling the truth. Did this mean that his position in the government would change? He remained committed to serving the Australian people, and believed in their right to know the truth.

Many commentators felt that this situation, one they had long hoped for and often tried to provoked, was the time to dust off the dancing metaphors that they had been saving. Peter Costello was stepping a precisely choreographed dance; a careful half step; a delicate pirouette. But however you looked at it he could dance the bloody flamenco, if John Howard didn't move Costello was always going to look stupid. Luckily in Australia we have a recent example of an ambitious deputy who believed himself entitled to the top job, and a popular leader reluctant to go. In Britain, it appears, Gordon Brown considers himself similarly entitled although Tony Blair is no longer the popular leader that he was. In the Australian example the treasurer Paul Keating managed to force his way into to the leadership, and in Britain it seems Tony Blair will hand it over willingly midway through next year. Both are fine examples of the way to seize the leadership from a long-time prime minister. In Britain Tony Blair's popularity with the public is seriously diminished and Brown seems to have considerable support in the party, or at least enough to seriously embarrass Blair in the last years of his prime ministership. In Australia this is not the case, John Howard remains as popular as ever and Peter Costello commands something like a twenty-five percent support among those who would elevate him to the Liberal party leadership.

This leaves the Australian example the most relevant, and the most fun for comparison considering that the principle players in this drama where the loudest tut-tutters during the previous one. Bob Hawke, then prime minister in a Labor government that had been elected in 1983, was confronted by his deputy and treasurer Paul Keating in the early 1990s. The two had shared the praise that accompanied a modernisation of the Australian economy in a globalising world, and were very much the partnership that defined the decade of uninterrupted government, much as Howard and Costello are today. Evidently they had agreed on a handover of the leadership known as, in a typically portentous tone, the 'Kirribilli Agreement'. When Bob Hawke decided that in fact he would prefer to stay around a little longer Keating was faced with an almost identical situation to that which Costello faced, and faces today. Howard and Costello's 'undertaking' had an expiry of before the 2001 election. However Keating demonstrated the way to force a handover in these situations. He challenged Bob Hawke openly in the party room and when he lost resigned as treasurer and as a member of the government in order to sit on the backbench. From there he was not bound by any of the niceties and formalities required of members of governments in the Westminster tradition, such as the rule of 'collective responsibility' for cabinet members. Then, to resurrect the dancing metaphor, Keating's pronouncement to his party was this: they must switch dancing partners or he was going to flail around so dramatically, so crazily and unpredictably, and with so little regard for others on the dance floor that come election time they were all likely to find themselves splayed on the floor rather than on their feet and still in the competition. It wasn't a pretty strategy but it took balls. And it worked.

Peter Costello is neither popular, nor it seems does he have balls.

So the leadership tensions remained at the level of semantics. Peter Costello assured us he was telling the truth, John Howard admitted that the meeting on the leadership had taken place but that there was never a 'deal' concluded. The argument was public, but still not face-to-face, and each man was loath to respond directly to the other's accusations. One man repeated 'truth', the other 'no deal', but never came a response 'deal' or 'no truth'. The treasurer had effectively called his prime minister a liar and a cheat, the prime minister had accused his deputy of hubris and arrogance. But both denied this might necessitate a change in their working arrangements. The treasurer was unwilling to surrender the position from which he could claim credit for the government's achievements, and the prime minister was unwilling to sack him and give the appearance of a divided party.

The public watched slightly bemused. A poll showed a good majority of the population believed Peter Costello, but wanted John Howard to stay. After all, they had, unlike their British coevals, proved time and again that they preferred a liar and a cheat to hubris and arrogance. And now, in the end, we are stuck with both.

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