The unclaimed passes in the lobby of Sydney's Wentworth Hotel suggested many Coalition supporters had lost their faith even before John Howard's election night function had begun. Some had lost their composure: there were tears from a Young Liberal lad, perhaps owing more to alcohol than sentiment; another roared, "We love you Johnnie," even though Johnnie was still at home watching the tumbling seats drive him from office.
Former Liberal Senator Michael Baume sipped at a glass of red in the foyer, explaining why the government had gone. Howard had given Australians so much, he suggested, that he had created an aspirational society, "but people have unlimited aspirations. We failed to point out to them what they've got, failed to warn them not to risk it."
Simon, a good 40 years Baume's junior, echoed that view. Wearing a bright yellow T shirt advertising himself as a supporter of Ken Ticehurst (an early Liberal casualty), he was bewildered by the rejection of Howard's robust economy. "If you want a job in Australia, you can get one. How many countries can say that?" A pretty brunette, leaning over just enough to drip champagne on the carpet, added, "It's a really odd time to throw out a government."
Odd or not, by 10 p.m. Howard had phoned his congratulations to Kevin Rudd, and Sky News announced the P. M.'s imminent arrival. A couple of diehards carrying a JOHN HOWARD FOREVER banner pushed roughly through the photographers lining the stage, careless of a supposedly left-leaning media complicit in Rudd's triumph. As one tried to protect his camera, a rugby league player in an expensive suit grabbed his shirt, snarling, "It's you f___ people's fault. Are you happy now?"
The boy at one end of the banner was trying to lead a chant: "Howard forever, Kevin never," oblivious to the giant screen behind him, which now read LABOR WINS. Dennis Baker, a law professor down from Queensland, nodded sadly at the message and said, "We are part of a day in history a sorry, sorry day."
The man with a bigger part in the day's history had now arrived, swaying camera lights marking his passage through the crowd. He made a dignified concession speech punctuated by cries of love from the drunks, his wife Janette serene beside him, looking as though she wouldn't miss the political circus for a second. Then he was into the crowd with a glass of white wine, hugging the friends and colleagues of a lifetime. There was the best man from his wedding 36 years ago; there his best mate from high school; over there his closest confidants since he entered Parliament in 1974.
An hour later he was still circling the room, smiling and chatting. A Sydney businessman, Order of Australia button in his lapel, watched admiringly. "He was the real thing," he said, raising his glass in Howard's direction. "I'll miss him. Australia will miss him."