It's funny to think back to 1996, when Howard won office. The first Howard ministry was a bunch of no-names; after 13 years of Labor rule, today's big guns, like Costello, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, had no ministerial experience. But the conservatives have put their stamp on the country, improved their party organization and employed the privileges of office to keep themselves in power. Howard became P.M. with a huge parliamentary majority; implementing his convictions - tax and industrial-relations reform, tougher gun laws and cultural realignment - cost him some of his electoral buffer at the 1998 poll. Three years later, his uncompromising border protection stand saw him increase his margin.
Familiarity breeds incumbency. A cautious electorate likes stability. Since 1949, there have been only four changes of government - in '72, '75, '83 and '96. Three-year electoral terms are, in practice, even shorter, as the P.M. can call a poll whenever he likes; on average, since 1972, Parliaments have run out of puff seven months early. The perpetual campaign cycle suits the agenda setters and those who control taxing and spending: they can ensure that wallets are bursting with dollars by the time the electoral writs are issued.
With an election expected later this year, the outline of Howard's campaign pitch just got clearer: continued economic growth, tax cuts all round, and generous payments to voters with children (or those planning to have them) and the aged. Howard has played this game before. Three years ago, he was toast, his government seen as "mean" and "tricky." Sure, 9/11 and the Tampa issue allowed Howard to display his superior national security credentials compared with Labor aspirant Kim Beazley. But a Budget-time spending bonanza six months before the poll helped Howard and his government to get back in the race.