Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Howard's End

Anyone catch this last night? (Available to view on the 4 corners website if you missed it.)

The interviews were refreshingly frank, and by the end of it all I could only wonder what on earth must have been going through Howard's mind during that last year in power. The accusations that he had lost touch with the electorate proved to be understatements: he'd completely lost touch with his own party as well.

In many ways, he orchestrated his own downfall in the same manner that he conducted his politics: with completely incorrigable stubborness. His reluctance to be engaged, for instance, on the issues of climate change and reconciliation - even as his approval ratings plummeted as a consequence - is a good example of this. Just eleven weeks later, his passionate resistence to these issues appears increasingly obsolescent and largely unfathomable. But in the broader context of his defeat at the 2007 election, it makes perfect sense: his snowballing hubris wouldn't allow a backstep, no matter how small or inconsequential. As petty as this makes him seem in hindsight, his unrepentant intractability must have presented as an endearing quality to many voters during his time in power, and must surely be one of the main reasons for his long-term poltical success.

But the idea of a man being undone by his greatest strength is one of the oldest recurring themes in Western literature. John Howard's story in this regard could be lifted straight from the pages of Sophocles or Shakespeare: a man of great power and growing hubris destroyed by the very quality that made him great in the first place. Although he always publicly maintained that the length of his tenure would be dictated by the best interests of the party, the interviews in this program made it quite clear that he never had any intentions of leaving. The revelation that he had lost the support of his cabinet but decided to stubbornly persevere anyway, almost as if to prove a point (to quote Downer: "John Howard’s view was that he wouldn’t just stand down, he would not just stand down and run away from a fight and be seen by history as a coward") probably shouldn't come as any surprise. As petulant as Costello sometimes appears during this interview, it's hard not to sympathise with him on this issue at least.

But, of course, this is all about Howard. He acheived an ignominous end and it was entirely of his own making. I can't help but look back on the triumphalism that so characterised his years as PM (adequately demonstrated in the footage spliced into the program from the tenth anniversary celebrations) and find this to be anything but a very beautiful thought.

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