Howard chickens out

Flap Flap, Squawkety squawk.  Itâs the sound of feathers flying, and wings beating with nervous Nelly intensity, as the Rodent transmogrifies in the space of a week to a chicken hawk thatâs more chicken than hawk.

After spending the better part of last week trying to brush the soot from his carbon caked credibility – trying to imply, without actually saying it, that wilfully ignoring a huge threat to our long term prosperity for more that five years, was in Australiaâs national interest – the Prime Minister has spent the last few days in a rapidly escalating drama on his other great strategic failure, Iraq.

It started with the Obama incident.  Howard served the ball over the net attempting to ace Rudd,  but found to his surprise and amazement, Barack Hussein Obama (as Gerard Henderson likes to call him) at the other end.  Obama employed a sizzling return that left the Prime Minister, whose ball skills have always been a national embarrassment,  looking spectacularly âuncoâ.

Keen to demonstrate to a Party room thatâs become a little edgy and uppity of late, that heâs not lost his touch,  Mr. Howard served again –  this time with his eye firmly on Rudd at the other end.  He might have had his eye on Rudd, but did he keep his eye on the ball?   Well, Letâs see.

It was only yesterday that Mr. Howardâs game plan included a descent to personal abuse. âDoesnât have the gutsâ, was the phrase employed.  Not of Lathamesque quality granted, but for Mr. Methodist Moderation, a veer into the vernacular that is quite out of character.  A sign of desperation?

Rudd was âgutlessâ apparently for not laying on the table, in intricate detail, the ALP plans for troop withdrawal.  That was so that he, Howard, could pick holes in it and deflect attention from his embarrassing Obama gaffe and the focus it put on his own plans to tread stoically down the road to failure,  against the better judgement of the Australian people.

Ruddâs response in Parliament was an inspired riposte.  âPrime Minister letâs have the debate on national telly, letâs debate your Iraq strategy, and your decisions in front of the Aussie viewing publicâ, he said. Or something like it.

Howard cowered. He cringed. And in his best mealy mouthed voice, as a way of deflecting the challenge that would be a loser for him, refused, and instead said Mr. Rudd âcan ask me any question he likes, anytime this parliament sitsâ.

That was yesterday.    Today Kevin Rudd accepted Mr. Howardâs challenge.  This morning, at the commencement of Parliament,  Kevin Rudd moved to have an hour long debate about Iraq, right there and then – in the Parliament – as Mr. Howard had suggested.  It wasnât just an opportunity for Mr. Howard to answer questions,  but to ask them of Mr. Rudd as well â What could be fairer?

Seconds after today’s parliamentary sitting began, Mr Rudd moved to suspend the House of Representatives program for an hour so he could debate the prime minister on Australia’s involvement in the war in Iraq.

But Mr. Howard chickened out.  He squibbed it.  The motion was defeated on Party lines.  No surprise of course, but itâs clear that Mr. Howard will not take on Mr. Rudd in the field, in open, even handed conflict on this matter.  Mr. Howard instead, wants an artillery war conducted in the media, where he can plot and scheme with his advisers, and deploy his media proxies to greatest advantage.

He doesn’t need a televised debate with me to say that, all he needs to do is to go out and front the media and say ‘in my view if coalition forces were withdrawn in March of next year the following would be the consequences’.”

Already Andrew Bolt has reported for duty, and the rest of them wonât be far behind. 

But what will he actually do? Won’t say. And the consequences? Won’t discuss.

Well clearly Rudd is prepared to discuss it, but not in a forum most favourable to Howard and his pet Rottweilers.  Mr. Howard canât cut it in a real time interchange on this one.   He needs his scheming space.   Rudd is looking very much like a canny political operator, and Mr. Howard, out of his comfort zone for a change, is looking more and more like a chook without a head.

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Ingolf Eide
17 years ago

I read Matt Price’s blog (“Howard and Rudd go for the Jugular“) for the first time today. Fascinating, not so much for Matt’s overview of this stoush so far as for the comments that followed.

There were 124 when I last checked and I’m kind of amazed at their quality. And civility. And at the near unanimity of their viewpoint. The Australian hasn’t, after all, exactly been an antiwar redoubt. Indeed, until quite recently, I thought it had given the WOT enthusiasts a better than even shake. Let me give you just two examples:

Aussie Bob of Sydney (14 February at 12:21 PM)

Matt, you point out to Bovis of Charlotte NC that we have about 1,500 service people in Iraq with about 500 on the ground at any one time.

The 500 on the ground, with the exception of the contingent guarding the embassy, are doing no fighting at all. Their function is to provide a uniformed presence in Iraq so that Howard can cover himself with the glory of a

17 years ago

This debate presents an interesting test for the media and John Howard’s current capacity to carry therein. To be a little more accurate, Rex, the vital question which the prime minister has insisted that the new opposition leader must promptly answer, or be condemned as “gutless”, is about the consequences of a US withdrawal from Iraq. Admittedly, it is not entirely clear why this is a vital question for Australian (as distinct from US) politics; and moreover it is a technically complex and diplomatically sensitive question, in response to which Howard himself has asserted little more than a simplistic “belief” that the consequences would be “catastrophic”.

Be that as it may, Howard was blindsided by Kevin Rudd upping the ante to challenge him to debate Australia’s Iraq policy live on television and, amid rival calls of “gutlessness”, excused himself by labelling the counter-challenge a “stunt”. To be sure, we can recognise the way in which the challenge may be branded a “stunt”, for a televison debate would grant Australia’s alternative leader an equal platform with the prime minister within a medium in which the alternative excels.

My first point is that, by exactly the same standard, Howard’s continual insistence that Rudd answer a question framed in the prime minister’s own loaded terms, within a parliamentary forum that does not allow the opposition leader to do so, amounts to the ruthless exploitation of the advantages that flow to him from incumbency. In other words, this is to say that Howard’s question was precisely no more and no less a political “stunt” and Rudd’s response was exactly in kind.

So, how will the politics be scored? We’ll see. On the ground it was a rough draw, although Rudd’s follow-up challenge in the parliament this morning reduced the degree to which his response can be labelled a “stunt”, arguably giving him the political edge that this post rams home.

Yet, given that we are actually dealing with not one but really rival “stunts”, as I said at the outset, my general point is that this therefore presents an interesting test for the media and Howard’s current capacity to carry therein. The unfortunate aspect, of course, is that there is a great deal of interest in Australia’s Iraq policy, and the public would no doubt welcome the open debate between the two leaders that the politics of the issue prevents. And so it goes.

17 years ago

Dissembled and deconstructed already.

It’s all a Howardian furphy gone wrong which explains all the ducking, covering and collective negative responses to challenges made in the heat of the moment.

Ken Parish
17 years ago


I don’t know about Jeff of Canberra, but I strongly suspect that “Aussie Bob” is the blogger of the same name from Tim Dunlop’s Road to Surfdom, and a gentleman with long-held hard left-ish opinions on most things as well as a confirmed card-carrying Howard hater. That doesn’t invalidate his opinion by any means, but he certainly isn’t the conservative reader of The Australian on the Clapham (or Bondi) omnibus, if that’s what you were imagining.

Ingolf Eide
17 years ago

No indeed, Ken. Still, he’s a most engaging writer to judge by this one post.

In recent years I find myself more often than not lined up with the “left”, this despite the fact that classical liberalism is for me a kind of lodestar in political philosophy. Given what I’ve been able to gather so far about the inclinations of Troppodillians, I guess this experience is fairly widely shared. The terms “radical” and “conservative”, in foreign policy terms at least, have pretty much swapped political camps.

By the way, looking back I see I phrased my query about “today’s commenters” poorly. The question I was left with after reading today’s comments was whether the blogs at The Australian usually attract such a wide, talkative and articulate bunch.

17 years ago

I recommend Bannerman’s piece, if you are curious about why the opposition asked Dolly to table the extract from the Iraq Study Group, and why said Dolly refused.

17 years ago

Interesting points. Howard has created in his tenure a political working which requires daily maintenance if not control of a desired public gulp, and in this regard Rudd is remarkable. He’s met Howard’s stunts and ploys each day with enough (and at times more) daily grunted nous to create a situation where we have two real contenders for the public will. It really is thrust and parry politics, with a clear intention to play it that way on a daily basis. Rudd I would suggest stands alone in terms of previous Labor leaders not only with the need upon him to do this, but to be able to do it with a fine sense of equanimity – nice and cool (Hawke Keating as recent successful Labor leaders could well have been severely unsuited to this, temperamentally).

Regardless then of who has won or lost this stoush, the clear difference in today’s play is that Rudd has shown himself so far eminently capable of winning back a media initiative as required of the day. Howard, of course, a master of this, has done so, too.

What this means is that the public will get tired of this one-upmanship in due course. This obviously won’t reach outer punterland at first but it will certainly affect media commentary – it’s reasonable to expect interviewers for instance to seek beyond the stoush for answers in the future, greater national interest. At that point, the short term political agenda of Howard and Rudd will be highlighted – the fundamental question will be asked: “What of the sustainable future?” for their policies on the table. (Sustainable in the relevant sense to each policy).

That possibility alone is a welcome and significant, remarkable, achievement by Rudd. So shortly in, there is a clear change showing in the way our national politics is ventured into and commented upon by our media, across the board. Whether Rudd can sustain this achievement is another issue. So, too, that question is now validly asked of Howard. Very unusual; very welcome; very healthy.

Variances including teamspersons’ performances, their own mistakes and conquests in policy or ploy, outer circumstances, public moodshifts, and so on as we all know are poised to throw things around – but what remains remarkably is that it’s declared “let’s play” at sunrise – then again at midnight for it to come on down again.

In regard of these things, this marks a new dawn for Australian politics.

Mark Bahnisch
17 years ago

If Howard believes the line from a few commentators that he’s best playing to his alleged strength on national security, he’s sadly mistaken. Despite claims that he never says anything without some deep political masterplan in place, clearly he had a brain implosion on Sunday which reflected the pressure he’s under.

It’s been very instructive as it’s actually brought out into the open some genuine debate about Iraq (albeit one sided – the mad ranting about terrsts from Dolly, Howard and Nelson isn’t part of a “debate” at all). But Rudd, and McLelland, have been able to focus public attention on some of the real issues at stake. The government’s response has been appalling, and Howard’s performance as a desparate pollie ranting and raving and waving his arms about in Parliament hardly suggests the image of a safe and steady statesman – that contrast has been in Rudd’s favour.

I hope the debate stays on Iraq!

Note that Costello was trying to stick to the economy.

17 years ago

Thanks for the accuracy adjustment Chris. Sometimes when the guns start blazing and you get caught up in the heady rush of explosions and cordite, its easy to forget that your targeting can be a little off.

A good observation Robert that the public will get tired of the one-upmanship. I agree. If your assetion holds that this will force the media to look beyond the games and the posturing to the substance, then that would indeed be a new dawn.

But what about the media proxies? They will never look beyond the game because they are part of the game?