SYDNEY. John Winston Howard entered the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney to a triumphant piece of musical kitsch of the kind that would signal a happy ending in a Hollywood movie. He brought with him his beaming wife, Janette, in peach and pearls, and his children. He was too tactful to say it, but backslapping supporters in the room had no qualms: “The sweetest one of all!” one roared.
Mr Howard had more grace. In a generous, confident and impassioned speech, he thanked the nation for its vote of confidence and made an almost prayerful vow to rededicate himself to the Australian people. Australia stood on the threshold of a new era of achievement, he promised. “The rest of the world sees us as a strong, successful nation . . . We are a nation that is respected by the world because we are prepared to stand up for what we believe in.”
He promised never to forget that governments are elected to govern for the people who voted for them and those who voted against them.
He thanked the Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, for his loyalty and his Treasurer and would-be successor, Peter Costello, for Australia’s strong economy, “the strongest economic conditions that this country has arguably experienced since World War II”.
He did not mention Iraq directly, but made several references to Australia’s willingness to stand up for democracy, and pointed out that “on this very day the people of Afghanistan have had an election, and that election has been made possible by reason of the fact that a number of countries, including Australia, were prepared to take a stand for democracy and to take a stand against terrorism”.
Earlier in the day, he had postponed his 6am power walk, emerging an hour later to lead the media pack around 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 before walking into the history books as the longest-serving prime minister since Robert Menzies.
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.”
Mr Howard denied that he saw the fine, sunny weather as a good omen: “The first time I was elected to Parliament it poured rain, in 1974, it was unbelievably wet.” Was he superstitious at all? “Oh no, not quite. (But) I occasionally carry a gold watch that my father carried through the First World War.”
He was not left wondering about his place in the history books 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 American 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 7.15pm, 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 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. They paid more attention to the wine and the tempura prawns than they did to the TV screens running election news; they knew it was all over, red rover. They were as one for the first time only when NSW State director Scott Morrison took the stage at 9.30 to ask them for silence during Mark Latham’s upcoming concession speech, “out of respect for our opponents”. He was greeted with jeering laughter.
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.”
Leading monarchist Professor David Flint said this could not be guaranteed: “I can’t see him facing a challenge, but economics don’t always go up.”
What now . . .
First published in The Age.