He went on to get thrashed at the following election and was duly consigned to oblivion; his career over, his ambitions dashed. But a decade later he was swept to power and became one of the longest serving prime ministers in Australian history.
Howard hadn’t changed but the country had. The times ended up suiting him after all.
Today’s opposition leader Anthony Albanese is also no stranger to the political wilderness. He was one of the few senior Labor figures who was loyal to both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard – refusing to white ant or move against either – during the bloody civil war of 2007-2013.
He was also loyal to arch rival Bill Shorten, despite beating him in the rank-and-file leadership ballot and knowing that Labor would probably have won in 2016 had he been the leader.
And when he was finally elected leader unopposed after Labor’s shock defeat last year, he refused to personally attack Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the bushfire crisis, despite intense political pressure to do so.
Eventually the only flames left were the ones engulfing the PM. Albo could have shot a man dead in the main street and still been unbackable to win the next election.
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Yet merely weeks later we are living in what is almost literally a whole new world. Scott Morrison is riding high again thanks to his largely sensible handling of the coronavirus crisis and Albanese has once more been forced to supplicate his political interests to the national interest.
And so when Albo stood up before his caucus colleagues this week to deliver what was supposed to be a groundbreaking and visionary speech that would set a new direction for Labor, many were surprised to hear its grand centrepiece was …
Well, a train.
It is important to realise that there are basically two types of people in the world: Those who love trains and those who have no soul.
Trains are beautiful and powerful and practical. They connect people, shape cities and build nations. Mournful blues wailers and lovestruck country troubadours write songs about trains. Nobody writes songs about buses.
Needless to say, Albo is a train man.
In this case the train in question is the high speed train between Sydney and Melbourne, a vision that has been part of the Australian dream for so long that it has taken on almost mythical dimensions. For nation builders it is something of an article of faith: you either believe in it or you don’t.
And yet for all the dreams and desires going back decades the project has never got off the ground – or, more specifically, on it.
A high speed rail between Sydney and Melbourne instinctively makes sense. Despite its vast size and relatively small population, Australia’s two biggest cities are remarkably close to one another and people travel between them – in normal times – in staggering numbers. It is one of the busiest air traffic corridors on the planet.
Not only that, the land between them is relatively empty and the national capital is conveniently located on the way. You could travel from the Sydney CBD to the Melbourne CBD in around three hours – faster than a plane once airport commute and wait times were factored in.
The same would ultimately apply between Sydney and Brisbane and a trip from Sydney to Canberra could be done in around an hour. And – even more attractively – you could leave Canberra just as quickly.
Plus it would ease congestion and overpopulation in the major cities because regional centres like Newcastle, the Gold Coast and Albury-Wodonga would be far more accessible. Businesses would be encouraged to set up there and residents could live there while still commuting to the capitals if they needed to.
According to the most recent feasibility study, it could, once operational, carry some 84 million passengers each year – around half the air trips between Sydney-Melbourne, Sydney-Brisbane and Sydney-Canberra – unlocking untold economic growth, creating better and more affordable quality of life and housing, reducing vast amounts of fuel consumption and just generally ticking every single conceivable box.
So why hasn’t it happened?
There are basically three reasons: The first is that the aforementioned feasibility study was completed in 2013 and Labor got booted from office later that same year. The second is that it was estimated to cost about $114 billion (in 2012 dollars) for the rail line alone. And the third is that it wouldn’t be completed until 2065.
In other words, a new government was hardly going to pick up the last thought bubble of the government it just defeated, it was hardly going to commit to over $100 billion when it was desperate to get the Budget back into surplus and it was certainly not going to do either of those things for a project that wouldn’t be finished until after every minister was long dead.
But the times have changed.
Firstly, political divisions at the top levels of power have been largely sidelined in the corona crisis. Leaders Labor and Liberal have come to realise that good ideas have no ideology.
Secondly, the once astronomical price tag is not so astronomical anymore. $114 billion is a lot when you’re aiming for a $5 billion surplus. It looks a lot different when you’re already staring down the barrel of $130 billion-plus deficits year after year.
And thirdly, it no longer matters who cuts the ribbon. All that matters is who gets a job.
During the last global financial crisis the Rudd government spent billions on its Building the Education Revolution scheme. It was heavily criticised in some quarters for wasted resources while others questioned why so much money was being thrown at a new school hall or toilet block when there were other vital areas of need.
But in fact this was entirely the point. The greatest myth about BER was that it was an education program – in fact it was a jobs program. It was specifically designed to keep the economy moving at all costs by tackling any project that was “shovel-ready”.
And it worked. Australia miraculously avoided going into recession and as an added bonus a whole bunch of schoolkids got a new library or classroom.
A high-speed rail line between our three biggest cities and the national capital is not yet shovel-ready but that hardly matters – unlike the GFC, this is not a recession we can avoid. It is one we will have to dig our way out of.
Even in good times, it was estimated that upon completion the high-speed rail would generate $2 for every $1 of investment. In this new era of skyrocketing unemployment that value is redoubled because it will provide jobs that would not otherwise exist.
The cost will clearly be enormous – no doubt it will blow out from the initial projection – but while this is a valid consideration against the benefit of a government trying to balance its books it is a totally different proposition in an era in which massive deficits will be inevitable anyway and the only question is what the money is spent on.
And so while in a perfect world we would have a strong Budget and a strong economy, that world has now disappeared. We now have a choice between enormous deficits and a dead economy versus slightly more enormous deficits and an economy that could be electrified back to life.
In an age of Twitterstorms and 24-hour news cycles that reduced crises to mere minutes, a crisis that knows no politics has swept through the world and forced us to think in terms of months and years and decades.
There may never again come a time when we can build what will be tomorrow’s Snowy Hydro or Harbour Bridge. The leaders who choose to do this may not be around to take credit but history will forever remember their legacy.
In this strange new age of social distancing the country has never been more in need of a vision that connects us. There is still no cure for coronavirus and the economic crisis could yet prove more devastating.
Creating a great matrix that brings Australians together might just be the antidote that saves this nation. The time has come.
Joe Hildebrand is the editor-at-large of news.com.au and co-hosts Studio 10, 8.30am weekdays, on Network Ten | @Joe_Hildebrand