So, John Howard has beaten Bob Hawke and is now Australia’s second-longest-serving PM, after Menzies. Sometimes it seems longer. On the other hand, when I look at the whole eight or nine years, the thing that strikes me most immediately is how little difference this government has made. In terms of domestic policy, it’s biggest single initiative has been the GST, a third-order reform if ever there was one. The abolition of the CES in favor of the Jobs Network schemozzle is probably the next. And Telstra has been half-privatised. No doubt there will be more now that the Senate isn’t an obstacle, but the government has done nothing to build up a popular demand for radical reform in most areas.
On foreign policy, it’s hard to think of a specific issue (except maybe Kyoto and the FTA, which aren’t strictly foreign policy) where Labor under Hawke, Keating or Beazley would have acted much differently. There’s been a substantial rhetorical difference, more pro-American and less focused on Asia, but in practical terms this doesn’t seem to have made much difference: Asian countries don’t seem to have treated us much worse and the US certainly hasn’t treated us any better.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing for a government not to do very much, but it means, I think, that Howard’s historical position will depend very much on the performance of the economy in this (presumably) final term in office. If the economy remains strong, the Howard government will have strong claims to have based its success on more than luck. Lots of economists, including me, have argued that prosperity based, in large measure, on favorable terms of trade and unrestrained housing speculation can’t be sustained indefinitely. By contrast, the government and its supporters have argued that the whole thing works because of low interest rates and that they are responsible for this. Another three years of growth would be strong evidence in support of this claim.
added 22/12 The one thing for which I will never forgive Howard, or anyone else involved, is Tampa/children overboard/the Pacific solution. Labor under Beazley was very weak on this, and a Labor government might well have done something similar (they started mandatory detention, after all), but Howard did it. It was wrong in itself, marked by dishonesty and cruelty from beginning to end, and brought out the worst in Australia (notably among bloggers). I don’t believe that there were significant practical benefits, but even if there were, they wouldn’t have justified these actions. In the absence of any big achievements or catastrophes in his remaining time in office, I think this episode will play a major role in historical assessments of Howard.
added 23/12 Some more thoughts on specific points over the page
Looking at some specific decisions, I’ll give a couple of bouquets and a couple of brickbats. Howard was right to tighten up gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre and, while it was popular, it took some courage to override the resistance of the gun lobby on this one. He could easily have waited it out and made only symbolic changes, as Bracks did after the Monash shootings exposed the inadequacy of our current licensing system for pistols, which enabled a nutcase with no legitimate reason for having even one gun to legally own four or five.
On the Solomons, despite the tragic murder of an Australian policeman yesterday, Australia was right to offer support to the re-establishment of civil order, and the whole thing has been handled with appropriate respect for principles of self-determination.
On East Timor, Howard pursued the path of least resistance. As long as Suharto was in office (that is, for the first 25 years of his career in public life) he showed no interest in rocking the boat. Of our leading politicians, only Laurie Brereton shows up with any credit on this score. When Suharto fell, and the Indonesians pulled out of ET, Howard had no alternative, given our long and shameful involvement in the issue, but to act as he did. And as soon as the fuss was over, he turned around and screwed the Timorese over the oil and gas fields.
On Iraq, from the narrowest possible view of Australia’s national interest, given a standing policy of obeying the US in all things (oddly referred to as an ‘alliance’), Howard didn’t too to badly. We satisfied the Americans, and got our troops in and (mostly) out, with no casualties (until very recently) and dodged all the messy business of nation-building, democratic elections, restoring order and so on. From the viewpoint of the world as a whole and the people of Iraq, though, our actions were disgraceful. In government, Labor would probably have gone along in the end, but they would have urged Bush to hold off and go through the UN, rather than acting as cheerleaders for a disastrous policy of unilateralism.