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Howard’s record

December 21st, 2004

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.

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  1. December 23rd, 2004 at 19:42 | #1

    jquiggin at December 21, 2004 05:22 PM airbrushs out John Howards role in the liberation of East Timor:

    On East Timor, Howard pursued the path of least resistance…[assorted banalities and speculations X 3]…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.

    No. The “path of least resistance” would have been to do absoulutely nothing and let the INDONs & E.TIMORs sort it out amongst themselves. This was the advice of the most influential sections of DFAT (does the phrase “Jakarta Lobby” ring any bells?).
    JWH chose a risky, but responsible, path of putting AUS troops into harms way, and then taking E TIMOR in as an AUS military protectorate. Anyone who thinks that INTERFET was going to be a piece of cake is being less than candid about the potential for catastrophic flare ups in these situations (Kosovo is a case in point.).
    This potential was evident to any sentient being paying attention to TIMOR at the time. There were two divisions of TNI on the W TIMOR border, the INDON general staff threatening coups in Jakarta, Wiranto going nuts on TV, Kopassus becoming a loose cannon. If Pr Q thinks that this is a “least resistance” path then I’d hate to see his idea of a rocky one.
    I can bat this point to and fro for decades but no one is going to be the wiser if Pr Q is going to use loaded counterfactuals. Two can play at this game eg “Howard saved AUS from a war with INDON because without a sucessful INTERFET the TNI would have staged a coup and commenced a confrontation with AUS” This is certainly a more plausible hypothesis than “least resistance INTERFET” line. It has the merit of actually going through the formality of actually happening (1965) before! But try selling it to a died in the wool Howard-hater.
    Its obvious, from the increasingly strained and implausible constructions that progressive-liberals (eg Fyodor, Pr Q) are placing on events, that they are in some kind of deep pyschological denial over the fact that JWH played a decisive role in the sucessful liberation of ETIMOR. How could this black-hearted reactionary do something so progressive?
    It. Doesn’t. Compute.
    They will just have to grow up and accept that History does not follow their, or any one elses, morality play script. Conservative-liberals often act to effect progressive-liberal change (eg Bismark.) Its tough luck for those ideological cheerleaders committed to blowing rasberries at partisan bogeymen, but there it is.
    I hate to be crude but there needs to be a credible referee. So I will leave the last and decisive word to a Ramos Horta, a man whose ethical and political qualifications no-one on this blog has the right to challenge. Horta, a Nobel prize winning progressive-liberal activist, was quite clear in giving great credit to Howard for liberating ETIMOR.

    [Horta] said it was thanks to Prime Minister John Howard that the United Nations intervention had succeeded, saving thousands of lives.

    So who are you going to believe:
    the progressive activist who has dedicated his life (literally) to saving E TIMOR
    the progressive commentators who seem unhinged in regard to Howard’s military policies.
    One does not have to be Sigmund Freud to suspect that the irony of Howard’s Historical actions speaking louder than his detractors ideological words may be a little too bitter for some tastes.

  2. Peter F
    December 23rd, 2004 at 21:32 | #2

    Re the lesser status of Hawke cfd. Whitlam, Keating, Chifley among Labor enthusiasts:
    Labor Party membership is full of romantics, for whom the touchstones are symbolic issues. My memory goes back far enough to when Whitlam was regarded with great suspicion (if not hostility) because he was seen as a potential back-slider on the Calwell-Cairns position on Vietnam – absolute and prompt withdrawl of troops. Whitlam’s Labor hero status is overwhelmingly a function of the dismissal.
    The problem for Hawke’s standing with Labor people (Party members and active supporters) is that the sorts of measures he (aided and abetted by Keating, Button, Dawkins et.al.) felt compelled to take, were at odds with what a large proportion of the Labor rank and file wanted. Issues like privatisation, media policy and uranium mining (remember Peter Garrett as a Nuclear Disarmament Party candidate narrowly missed a Senate seat in 1984) caused massive disaffection in the ALP. While Hawke kept winning, dissent was muted because enough success-starved Labor supporters kept hanging on to the bandwagon.
    However, when Hawke’s magic was seen to have expired, Keating eased up on the “reforms” and emphasised the symbolic issues like the republic, Mabo, even the anti-GST campaign and others, which struck a chord with Labor supporters; in doing so he antagonised a crucial proportion of the electorate. How much of Keating’s post-1991 emphasis was conviction, and how much was his playing the few cards he had left, is debatable. What is certain is that the growing distance between Labor partisans and the electorate widened the 1996 margin of defeat, just as assuredly as the fact that Keating was the only leader who could have pulled off the victory in 1993. If Keating hadn’t won the leadership, and then subtly changed direction, it’s a fair bet that he would be a greater pariah than Hawke, as he would have been seen exclusively as the architect of the economic “reforms” to which a majority of Labor people were resistant.
    The reluctant/embarrassed ownership by Labor people (including many contemporary Federal MPs) of the Hawke-Keating era economic changes, has made it almost impossible for the post-Keating ALP to develop a plausible story about Labor’s role in the success of the contemporary Oz economy.

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