As I was saying before I was so suddenly interrupted, if the Liberals are wondering who or what has plunged them into chaos they need look no further than John Winston Howard.

Consumed by hubris, clinging to his failing prime ministership with bloodied fingernails, egged on by his wife and his adoring media claque, the Toad (thank you, Alan Ramsey) wilfully destroyed any chance of a seamless leadership succession in the party he so humbly professed to serve. And the heir apparent, Peter Costello, alternately pouting for the cameras and sulking in his tent, never found the ticker to take him on the way Paul Keating rolled Bob Hawke.

It was a surefire recipe for the shambles we see before us. The federal parliamentary Liberal Party is consumed by fear and loathing. Barren of anything that might be tricked up as rational policy, its members are stuck together only by a seething stew of grudges and whinges and a gnawing sense of entitlement denied.

Malcolm Turnbull does his best to soldier on. "We're in very good shape," he blathered on Wednesday as he and the shadow cabinet paraded in public for what they evidently hoped might be taken as a show of unity. His sickly grin reminded me of that exquisite remark the old Country Party leader Artie Fadden offered up when Robert Menzies' leadership was crashing in ruins in 1941: "He seemed as happy as a sailor on a horse". In truth, poor Malcolm must be wondering at the madhouse he has entered, a dark and dismal hole with the likes of Wilson Tuckey gibbering in the corner.

The show of unity was hardly enhanced by Joe Hockey announcing that, yes, he had been approached by a person or persons unknown to have a crack at the leadership. When this unsurprising revelation hit the news cycle, Jolly Joe hastened to trumpet his loyalty to his leader, but the damage was done. With friends like that, etc.

Given that Turnbull is doomed, Hockey may well be next in line to grasp the poisoned chalice, unless the party completely loses its head and thrusts the thing into the eager hands of Tony "the Mad Monk" Abbott. This just might happen. The amiable Hockey would go down well enough with the electorate, in a Kim Beazley sort of way, but ideologically he is in the soft-left Turnbull camp and anathema to the fractious nutters of the party right.

Perhaps not all is lost. Recently I saw that John Alexander, the tennis star and Liberal aspirant, was saying that what the nation really needs is more tennis courts. He was seeking preselection for Brendan Nelson's north shore seat of Bradfield, an electorate that probably has more tennis courts per capita than anywhere in the country, but it is the germ of a bold initiative that could unite the party. First things first. It's all very well for the spendthrift Rudd Socialists to throw billions at Aboriginal housing, but that's hardly going to get us back into the winner's circle at Wimbledon. A tennis court in every backyard!

? ? ?

Speaking of the north shore, I stand four-square with the locals battling the "development" of those hideous clumps of home units that are spreading up the Pacific Highway like bone cancer.

The state Labor Government, with its swingeing planning laws, seems fixated on blighting these green and pleasant suburbs in what you can only assume is punitive class warfare of an almost Mark Lathamesque vindictiveness. Some of the blocks I saw the other day have all the homely elegance of Parklea prison. No wonder the local estate agents are finding them hard to flog off.

The trouble is that, as David Marr pointed out in the Herald a few weeks ago, the north shore has no friends in Macquarie Street. But the solution is obvious, I would have thought: hire Graham Richardson. As everyone knows, doors fly open at the mere hint of good ol' Richo's elegantly shod footfall in the corridors of power.

The thrusting property developer Ron Medich (there is no suggestion, etc) was reportedly paying $5000 a month for his lobbying services. You could easily top that sort of money in a brisk, half-hour doorknock along Stanhope Road, Killara or Ku-Ring-Gai Avenue, Turramurra and, bingo, you've got your hired gun, so to speak. (Again, there is no suggestion …) Richo, a former federal environment minister, would no doubt delight in finding himself on the side of the angels. And all perfectly "L-E-G-A-L legal," as the ever more queenly state Planning Minister, Kristina Keneally, proclaimed the other day.

It might just work, although if you discern any movement in this wretched government it can only be rigor mortis. A parliamentary party in which Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi are hailed as kingmakers is clearly off its collective rocker.

In the unlikely event of this lot of dopes ever glimpsing Ben Chifley's legendary Light on the Hill, their only impulse would be to rezone it commercial/industrial and subdivide it.

A hero all these years

LAST week I was among friends and family gathered at the Randwick Labor Club to celebrate the 90th birthday of a great Australian. And I mean great.

Francis Joseph McGovern was a lad of 20 when war broke out in 1939 and, as a navy reservist, was one of the first to the fight. After the fall of Singapore in 1942, his ship, the cruiser HMAS Perth, was torpedoed by the Japanese in the Battle of the Sunda Strait, north-west of modern-day Jakarta. Frank's brother, Vince, was lost in the sinking, but he made it to shore and was eventually consigned to the horrors of the Burma-Siam Railway.

He survived that, too, only to be torpedoed again, this time by the US Navy

as he was being shipped off to Japan. Recaptured by the Japanese, he worked as a slave labourer in a factory in Tokyo, where he was fire-bombed by the Americans in 1945 and his back was broken.

In hospital, he discovered that disabled Allied prisoners were being surgically murdered by Japanese doctors so their blood could be used for transfusions. Somehow he managed to stagger in agony from the ward and eventually he recovered to hear, in his prison camp, of the Japanese surrender.

These days any mug football player can be called a hero. Frank McGovern, a humble and gentle man, is the genuine article.

smhcarlton@hotmail.com