One of the things that most struck me about John Howard’s campaign launch last week was his invocation of a speech Menzies made in 1942. The “forgotten people” speech was so long ago that it would have no resonance for any who aren’t political junkies, and even there I suspect most of us have forgotten what Menzies actually said, if we ever knew.
John Howard also gave a long interview to Laura Tingle of the Fin Review early last week. The media generally really only picked up on his claim that it didn’t matter so much if he’d spent his way right up to the edge of the 1% budget deficit target, because Treasury forecasts are usually wrong.
But reading the entire text, I thought it was very significant for what it indicated about the headspace Howard is in. He talked about campaign launches in the era of the public meeting – in the Canterbury Town Hall back in the 60s. He defended his decision not to stand down in favour of Costello by pointing to the timing of Menzies’ announcement and the dimensions of Harold Holt’s win in 1966. State aid was tossed into the mix too. None of this was prompted by Tingle – it all came spontaneously to Howard.
Howard was thinking of events which occurred when he was a young man, and even earlier events which had shaped the politics of the early to mid 60s, when he first became involved politically. I don’t want to dwell on his age, but there’s an interesting point here – I’m well aware that as I grow older (and Howard has had almost three decades longer on the planet than I have) that at significant moments of change, you do tend to go backwards in time and relive the conditions which put you on a particular path. I think that you do that when you’re about to change direction, or something is coming to an end.
My strong suspicion is that Howard knows his time as PM is over, has accepted that he will almost certainly lose the election (and would be tossed out quickly by his own party even if he hung on), and that’s why his head is seemingly moving around in a space defined not by the politics of the future but by an Australia of four, five or six decades ago. I think his odd confessions just before the campaign began when talking about reconciliation were a pointer as well.
None of this, of course, is helpful to him politically, but I don’t make these observations in a particularly partisan spirit. If anything, it humanises him for me. But I do think there’s a strong suggestion in many of his recent remarks that he himself knows his time has come and gone.
Cross-posted at PollieGraph.