John Howard’s day started with nerves as he faced becoming the second longest-serving prime minister, writes Karen Kissane.
Perhaps it was because he’d had a bad night. Prime Minister John Howard yesterday postponed his scheduled 6am power-walk, emerging at seven to lead the media pack up the hills and down the dales of Sydney’s Kirribilli. He confessed to butterflies in his stomach, and later said he had slept fitfully: “What would you expect?”
He had seen that morning’s polls, and one of them gave credence to his claim – incumbent upon leaders on election day – to underdog status: “I think they tell a picture of a very close result.” He then took off on what was either his last morning walk as prime minister, or his last before walking into the history books as the longest-serving prime minister since Robert Menzies.
He was not left wondering for long. The Prime Minister watched the result unfold from his official home, Kirribilli House in Sydney, with his wife Janette and children Melanie, Tim and Richard. Richard had flown home from Washington, where he has been working on the election campaign of US President George Bush.
At 7.05pm, Liberal Party powerbroker Michael Kroger told Channel Nine that in Victoria there was an early swing to the Liberals in every one of the state’s 37 federal seats. By 7.15, Labor Senator Robert Ray predicted that it would be almost impossible for Labor to win the election, and that it was likely to emerge with fewer seats than before.
By the time the official Liberal function began at the Wentworth Sofitel Hotel at 8pm, many of the invited 800 family, friends, key advisers and donors who had begun to trickle in were confident they were headed for a party rather than a wake.
Former Liberal Senator Michael Baume said Mr Howard’s campaign tactic of “pointing out the risks of change” had proved right.
Would this latest win make the PM’s position in the party room unassailable? “He was already invincible.” NSW Liberal Party director Chris McDiven agreed: “He is unassailable now for as long as he wants to be prime minister.”
On his power-walk that morning Mr Howard’s pace was, as usual, unrelenting, and his tracksuit was of the requisite dagginess, with a patriotic twist: the fluorescent yellow jacket had a green “Australia” and the stars of the Southern Cross on the back. On his walk, as in his political life, critique did not sway him. He did not slacken his stride when he reached the graffiti chalked at intervals on the pavement below his feet: “Vote for the forests”; “WMD – Where are they?”; “Free children in detention”; and “Howard throws the truth overboard”. The chalked opposition may have been extensive but it was in a form that George Bush’s “man of steel” could literally walk right over.
Mr Howard did not get off quite so easily when he arrived mid-morning at Putney Public School, in Sydney’s north, to cast his vote in his home seat of Bennelong. He was met by his daughter, Melanie Howard-McDonald, and her husband Rowan, who were in jeans and Liberal T-shirts handing out how-to-vote cards. Mr Howard kissed her and said effusively, “Family support – fantastic!” His wife and sons were not with him.
As the PM democratically took his place in the queue, he ignored a woman who shouted from the back of the crowd in broken English that he did not rescue countries that did not have oil to protect them. Then another lone female voice began warbling an angry ditty of the kind PMs do not enjoy as background to their media moments: “Shame Howard shame, you have cheated on the game.”
As the singer launched into encores, Mr Howard’s efforts at innocuous chitchat with reporters were suddenly re-energised. A reporter asked if this would be the last time he voted for John Howard. The PM gave a tight smile: “You never rest, you guys, do you?”
First published in The Age.