In politics, blandness is forever

So, John Howard’s staying. I’m a little surprised, I thought he’d want to hand over the difficult task of winning a fifth election to the obvious fall guy that Peter Costello is, take a victory lap, and leave the party floundering. And it raises a truly terrifying prospect for those of us who wouldn’t mind at least some variety after a decade of the Howard Government. What if Howard’s formula of remaining leader “for as long as the party want me to” in fact amounts to forever?

As someone who makes a living by taking the complex, serious issues of politics and reducing them to a series of trivial jokes, the prospect of yet another Howard v Beazley contest fills me with dread. Not only have all the jokes been made before, but this pair must surely be the most bland politicians of their generation. Yes, including Philip Ruddock and Kevin Rudd. (Actually – how good would a Rudd v Ruddock campaign be? Imagine the massive voter confusion.) The thought of spending yet another year combing the minutiae of what these drab men do in the vain hope of finding anything amusing to say about it is a truly horrifying proposition.

It speaks volumes about our political apathy that Howard and Beazley have proven so enduring. Is it because they never surprise us? Is it because they tend not to infiltrate our consciousness much on any individual occasion, their featureless speeches blending into one dull morass? Or is it that our contempt for politicians is so great that the more the media’s attention focusses on any one of them, the less we like them? By contrast, one-time media darlings Mark Latham and Natasha Stott-Despoja flared brightly but only lasted one campaign. Latham’s burnout is still the last genuinely interesting thing to have happened in politics.

Kim Beazley has been around for decades, and led the party for most of one, and he still can’t make a speech without sounding desperate, as if he is trying to assert the appearance of decisiveness and leadership and hoping no-one calls his bluff. When he tries to assert himself, to show ticker, he just sounds shrill and unconvincing. And really, how he can not have learned the art of concise sound bites in all this time is remarkable.

Whereas Howard has used his three decades in Parliament to become the grand master of relentlessly leaching controversy from every statement he makes. He’s like an old-fashioned opener blocking every ball into the turf, never taking a run except on a fielding mistake by his opponents. In times of trouble, he is enormously reassuring because he is always exactly the same. But in terms of inspiring his party and nation, of getting the nation to buy into some overarching vision, he is always found wanting. (This may be because many of his visions are about tax and unpalatable IR reforms.) Howard is the leader for an age of terror, not an age of nation-building.

The same problem is endemic in State politics. Peter Beattie, Steve Bracks and Bob Carr have all won multiple elections with a dull but reliable approach, stifling every controversy and refusing to alienate the mainstream. It’s hardly surprising more young people are interested in reading NW.

The one interesting aspect everyone’s focussing on in all this, of course, is Peter Costello. He has far more flair than Howard, but also far more flaws. After his last round of petulance, he has adopted his leader’s straight bat, knowing that he has to do that to have any chance of succeeding him now. He did the decent – well, only viable – thing and quickly followed Howard’s announcement with his own commitment to hang around until a shock election loss or sheer inevitability makes him leader.

Perhaps they have finally concluded that long-overdue Kirribilli Agreement now? Costello has denied it, but it would have been a brilliant way to silence him. But the Deputy Leader would probably have agreed to anything just to keep the gig. He kicked the tyres on a challenge, and found he wouldn’t get anywhere. The backbench must be looking almost as unattractive as being in the Democrats right now.

Who knows how long John Howard has in him? 5 years? 10? You’d be crazy to bet against him. So the only prospect of change – other than in the ALP, when Beazley finally retires after probably losing election #3 – is a rumour in Crikey today that Alexander Downer might be stepping aside if the Deputy Leader’s position doesn’t become vacant soon. Which means we may soon be deprived the one pollie who can still be relied on for an entertaining gaffe. Who’d have thought there was a way Australian politics could become even duller?