It's often said of chronically tardy people like me that we would be late for our own funeral. What I've always wondered is what could be wrong with this. Politeness to ones friends and family can be taken too far. After all, if its OK for the bride to be late for her own wedding, why shouldn't the guest of honour be late for that other great family occasion? And what would be so bad if you missed it altogether? No worse, surely, than Finnegan waking up in the middle of his.
However, there's a broader sense in which we all need to learn to depart at the right time. I often talk to organisations about this. It's called "succession planning". If you are a leader in an organisation - say, the President - then you should groom a successor, and then when they're ready to step up, you should step down and let them get on with it. This ensures that the organisation doesn't go stale, and that new ideas and ways of doing things can flourish. Show me an organisation where the same person has been president for 40 years, and I'll show you an organisation that is slowly dying. This person is, indeed, late for their own funeral, but no-one can put off the day indefinitely.
One place where people seem to constantly work at delaying their last rites in in politics. I remember the long years when Joh Bjelke-Petersen was Premier of Queensland. Joh had said at some stage that he believed the role of Public Works Minister was a good one for a potential Premier - you got to understand everyone else's portfolio, and to travel around the state opening things and delivering good news. Whenever he had a cabinet reshuffle, journalists would look at the person given that portfolio and speculate about their leadership chances. The only problem was that they were always nonentities. Joh had no interest in grooming a successor. He planned to stay forever.
Despite his rat cunning and notorious manipulation of the electoral system, Joh didn't get to die in the job. Instead he was dragged out kicking and screaming by disillusioned colleagues after the worst corruption scandal in the State's history. He lived on for another 20 years and even had a rehabilitation of sorts, courtesy of long-time opponent and admirer Peter Beattie.
Beattie himself was one of the few political leaders to actually carry through a succession plan, grooming Anna Bligh for his job and then stepping out after ten years to hand over to her. Most of them hold on until the numbers fall against them - either in their party room, like Kevin Rudd or Morris Iemma, or in the electorate like John Howard or John Brumby.
However, some do get to to be late for their own funerals. Paul Keating managed to delay his by a full three years courtesy of an incompetent opponent and a ruthless sense of when and where to insert the knife. Anna Bligh is more subtle than Keating but she still managed to do the same thing in her most recent election, and her reassuring performance during floods and cyclones could even allow her to delay into a third term.
I don't hold out much hope for the current NSW Premier, Kristine Keneally, though. Much as she presents graciously and reasonably on our TV screens and talks like she's actually governing the state, the funeral march has been playing since the day of her election. Those of her senior colleagues who haven't been sacked for various sorts of impropriety are lining up to bear the coffin out the door and we won't be seeing any of them again in a hurry. The eulogies are all written, the Liberal successor is tapping insistently on the door. It would almost be rude for her to try to stay longer.