John Howard: a political obituary

So many political careers have come to an end in the last week that it’s not going to be possible to say much about all of them. But John Howard’s thirty or more years in Australian politics deserve some sort of notice beyond what we’ve seen so far, mostly motivated by the internal disputes of the Liberal Party .

I’ll start with the positives. Despite his carefully cultivated ordinariness, Howard was the most substantial figure produced by the Liberal party since the party itself was created by Menzies from the ruins of the old United Australia Party. In important respects, he epitomised the ‘forgotten people’ to whom Menzies appealed, and, on a number of critical occasions (after the Port Arthur massacre, on East Timor, after the Boxing Day tsunami), he represented those people at their best.

He was also, particularly in Opposition, one of the leading advocates of microeconomic reform in Australia. While I disagreed (and still disagree) with a good deal of the reform agenda, there’s no doubt that Howard was on the winning side of that debate in the 1980s and 1990s, and that he played a major role in pushing the Hawke-Keating government in that direction. In office, he pursued the reform agenda in some respects (GST, Telstra, Workchoices). By 2004, though, he realised that the hopes of the radical reformers for drastic cuts in the role of the state were politically and socially untenable, and embraced a big role for government, although often in a rather ad hoc fashion. And while his government didn’t cause the long economic expansion we’ve enjoyed since the early 1990s, it didn’t derail it either.

These things would have been enough to make him one of the great Prime Ministers of this country, if they weren’t counterbalanced by some huge negatives. Two stand out.

First, in reflecting the best of the forgotten people, he also reflected the worst, most notably, the narrow-minded bigotry, never quite amounting to racism, that was taken to be normal by Menzies and his followers. Howard assumed that most Australians were like himself in this respect and, whenever he was presented with the opportunity to play on prejudice, he took it. Sometimes, as with Tampa, this worked. At other times, as with the Blainey-inspired attack on Asian immigration in the 1980s, it failed. The 1980s episode can be seen as a prelude to the culture wars Howard and his followers pursued with such venom, until the public finally ran out of patience with them.

Second, he took a political process that was already in decline and debased it beyond recognition. Happy to tell an outright lie if need be, he preferred statements that required such careful parsing as to make interpretation just about impossible. Misdeeds that would have produced automatic resignation under any previous government, ranging from the use of ministerial office for personal enrichment to corruption of the public service, were ignored or rewarded with promotion. Among a vast catalog, the AWB scandal stands out, closely followed by Children Overboard. Anyone who challenged the government on its lies was pursued vindictively, using both the power of the state, and the government’s cheer squad in the media.

In the end, it was fitting both that Howard should attain great political success, and that his career should end in humiliating defeat. His ability deserved the one, and his misdeeds the other.

Note: On past experience, some commenters may well want to make a large number of lengthy responses to this. I’m going to create a separate post for them, and ask people commenting here to keep their remarks short and to the point.

39 thoughts on “John Howard: a political obituary

  1. The good things about Mr Howard’s leadership occurred in the early days. As he became more comfortable in the role he lost that sense of what was good and took the spoils of office – believing the saying that if enough money was spent on advertising then the people would believe anything.

    However what he failed to understand was that all of the enemies he created began to speak at private gatherings to friends and family, to people in shopping centres and at events organised for the purpose.

    The result was not created by the advertising industry but by bloggers, unionists, immigrants, lawyers, nurses, indigenous people etc all acting together to rid themselves of a government they well understood would be unstoppable if they were unsuccessful.

    The grassroots stopped talking to Howard and his Ministers as there was no point. The Liberals just couldn’t match the numbers on the ground where it mattered and didn’t understand the extent of the anti – government organising that was occurring. The press was controlled, the advertising pernicious and the test of a good marketing campaign that a person is more likely to trust a brand recommended by a friend or relative, was ignored. Howard was beaten by hubris in the end as his brand was not being recommended at the individual level.

  2. Nice summary John. Another positive is that Howard was the most formally civil and courteous PM I can think of. I’m speaking here specifically of formal courtesy – not speaking abusively. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t shy of attacking opponents – he was in fact ruthless, and shifty as well. But he almost never uttered an abusive comment. The contrast with Paul Keating is considerable.

  3. I agree with Nick and STAP, one of the best political obituaries I’ve read in a long while.

    He behaved just as I’d want a PM to behaver during real times of crisis from Port Arthur to the Asian meltdown to Bali to the Boxing Tsunami. Struck just the right note in his public statements and took the right actions (although perhaps the guns ban went too far).

    But he also manufactured needless and divisive crisies and too often knowingly appealed to the worst instead of the best of nature just to retain power.

    Not to mention blowing the dividends of the resources boom on middle class welfare instead of seriously investing it in on long term future.

    I meet him once and apart from having an overfully hard squeezing handshake (“I may be small but I’m strong, mate”) he was very affable and quite funny in person.

    And unlike so many pollies, I believe he did have what he saw as the nation’s best interests at heart. But he was no nation-builder. In fact rather the reverse.

    Can’t say I’ll miss him, but I won’t forget him.

  4. SATP,

    I guess it depends on your style preference: up-front vitriol or the sly approach of smiling to your face while stabbing you in the back.

  5. John Howard set a fine example with his morning walks and his energy for a man of 68. He deserves credit for his brave stands on gun control and East Timor, and his overall competent economic management.

    However his actions on Iraq were the lowest form of political opportunism by strongly supporting the US politically in an illegal war, and yet making only a token military commitment to avoid the fallout from casualties.

    And hopefully the dog whistle can now disappear from Australian politics along with Howard.

  6. No Shop Steward, it was the gun control which was the ill-thought out opportunism.

    I don’t doubt he believed he was doing what was right and what was in the nation’s best interest, but he made a pigs ear of it.

    The Iraq war you describe is unrecognisable compared to the one troopers describe. Wait until it is over. Saddam got what he asked for, and he got what he deserved. Will Iraq get what it deserves, despite the best efforts of the loose bin laden/terrorist/anti-west coalition? Wait and see.

  7. A very fair assessment, I think. I’ve found it hard to get excited over the AWB scandal. The biggest blight on the Howard years has been the treated of illegal arrivals (particularly by boat). Internment of people is simply wrong, and the deportation of citizens and permanent residents should have resulted in criminal prosecutions.

  8. Pr Q says:

    First, in reflecting the best of the forgotten people, he also reflected the worst, most notably, the narrow-minded bigotry, never quite amounting to racism, that was taken to be normal by Menzies and his followers. Howard assumed that most Australians were like himself in this respect and, whenever he was presented with the opportunity to play on prejudice, he took it.

    I generally agree with Pr Q’s obit, esp the positive bits. Howard made us strong when we needed a firm hand on the tiller during crises eg Port Arthur shootigs, 911 attacks, people smuggling surges, Bali bombings, Aceh Tsunami, indigenous community collapse.

    Howard’s lied way too much for his own good. But his Machiavellian processes have not really hurt the country all that much. Kids overboard were heading that way when their parents scuttled the SIEV, AWB wheat fed Iraqi kids, the Iraq war bolstered the US alliance. Lying to Peter to pay Paul is sometimes the only way to square the democratic circle with geo-political realities.

    His worst failure was encouraging unproductive speculation in real estate, encouraging debt and housing in-affordability. I say this even as a former owner of two residential investment properties. Also a neglect of sci-tech innovation investment.

    The obit is marred by political correctness and undue sensitivity towards cultural sensibilities. No doubt judicial thought is always best, but this requires knowledge of individualities. Sometimes prejudice is the best we can do in the circumstances, esp when we need to make generalities. I daresay everyone uses them, although few are willing to own them. None of this is too licence racial persecuting or privileging.

    In Howard’s case, his playing to prejudice amounted to questioning the unqualified benefits and unquantified costs of diversity. If only conservatives had used this wisdom when contemplating Iraq-attack. Any resident of Baghdad, Belfast or Beirut might shake a weary head in rueful acknowledgment.

    To take the first point last, Howard’s “cruel-to-be-kind” civic policy has made AUS a far more liberal and tolerant one than it would otherwise have been. This truth is exactly the opposite of the Cultural Left’s narrative about Howard Culture War politics ie “trashed reputation”, menacing “rise of intolerance” and so on.

    The actual facts speak for themselves. Howard has encouraged “actual and existing” ethnic diversity since he took office. The ABS Year Book (2005) gives the brute facts.

    There has been a significant change in the source countries of permanent arrivals, with settlers arriving from more diverse regions of the world since the mid-1990s compared with the early-1980s. In 1982-83, 28% of settler arrivals to Australia were born in the United Kingdom, 9% were born in Vietnam and 7% were born in New Zealand.

    In 2002-03 the United Kingdom and New Zealand both contributed 13% of all settler arrivals, although in 2001-02 New Zealand-born settler arrivals contributed 18% of all settler arrivals in that year whereas settler arrivals born in the United Kingdom only contributed 10%. Settler arrivals born in China (7%), India (6%) and South Africa (5%) each contributed 5% or more of all settlers in 2002-03 compared with only 1%, 2% and 3% respectively in 1982-83

    Whoa, way to go John Howard, nasty purveyor of “narrow-minded bigotry” and promoter of a white-bread future. How did the Cultural Left become so delusionally distant from reality in both the corridors of power and in the mean streets?

    Compared to Fraser-Hawke we now have a much more diverse, higher flow and better integrated immigrant intake. NESB immigration is at all time high. Borders are secure. The Labor-Left’s rorts and rackets have been exposed and rolled up.

    Very importantly, the native population is much more relaxed and comfortable about NESB’s now that they know that immigrants have gone through due process and are likely to fit in. Hansonism gets no traction once the natives have stopped getting restless.

    This is a world away from the late eighties when the ethnic lobbyists and political correctors were setting up NESB enclaves to further their careers. The subject became too toxic to touch. To take one example 1988 Fitzgerald poll on immigration had to be censored by the authorities because of the underlying public hostility it revealed. Inevitably there was a Hansonite reaction.

    Howard’s wary attitude towards unconditional diversity has been mostly vindicated by the emerging consensus amongst cutting edge social scientists. It stands up better than most of the Cultural Left’s contributions, with their preference for moral postures and intellectual impostures.

    Its been win-win for Howard on cultural policy and polity if not “politics”. If this is what “narrow minded bigotry” achieves then as a staunch supporter of fair play I say bring it on!

  9. To coin a phrase, “the jury is still out:”

    On alleged crimes against humanity, if not alleged war crimes. And I am alleging and will continue to do so.

    The “good legacy” of John Howard otherwise is irrelevant IMHO. One could argue sure, he ‘made the trains run on time’ and ‘funded some spiffy autobahns.’ (Screw Godwin’s law)

    BTW, if people think the gun laws are so good they may like to explain the point of prosecuting a lady in Walgett NSW a few weeks ago, for having in her unlicenced possession a totally rusted out .22 rifle incapable of firing anything, for the additional reason that IT HAD NO BOLT.

  10. It seems like only yesterday (well, 2004) that Howards political genius was being hailed for demonstrating that the Coalition was the natural government of Australia and that we could look forward to their continuing political ascendency for some time to come.

  11. Ummm … how about a decade of climate change denial? No-one mentioned that. A decade from now when AWB, Tampa and kids overboard are long forgotten we’ll still remember Howard’s decade of inaction on climate.

  12. 10. SATP, so Howard meant well in Iraq, and it’s good intentions that count eh?

    And so we should just wait (and wait, and..) until the war’s finally over until we tally up the score and decide who actually won?

    Depends on your definition of victory I suppose but the fact that this disaster is still raging ~5 years on, with a few hundred thousand dead (but deliberately uncounted), a few million people displaced, a trillion dollars wasted (unless you work for Haliburton), the country now being terrorism central and the US military stretched to breaking point doesn’t exactly fit my definition.

    But, Steve, you just keep waiting for the final score eh?

  13. The most significant words in this post are
    ” While I disagreed (and still disagree) with a good deal of the reform agenda”
    Anyone who can still say that, after the economic success (much I agree, due to Keating) of the last 15 years has just about disqualified themselves from economic commentary. Political commentary, OK, but who really cares about that these days?

  14. SATP it is all over.

    You will need to deal with fair wage arrangements in the hospitalty industry. Treating people with fairness will be new to you; arrangements have changed.

    Steve, just as a reminder, last week, we voted in a new government.

  15. On the negative side, Q omitted his massive and inequitous redistribution of income, in its various forms, from childless people to parents.

  16. John, I recall reading recently about the pathology of bloggers like SATP. Maybe it was in something written by Dan Davies or Barry Ritholtz, I’m not sure.

    The premise is that people like SATP desperately want to be popular, but basically have nothing interesting to say. They are unable to attract a popular following to their own blogs, so they in effect live as parasites on other more popular blogs, attempting to steal the host’s audience.

    The prognosis was to apply some flea powder and get rid of the parasites.

  17. The thing that most described the Howard government was the treatment of the unemployed. Centrelink was turned into a petty-minded, bureaucratic and cruel weapon of petit-bourgeois downward envy. The application of the “activity test” for the most minor infringements results in a loss of income for 8 entire weeks. Who the hell could survive that with no resources?

    This was cruelty to the poorest, most powerless and most pititable of Australian citizens.

    To top it all off, one of the results of the NT Intervention was that Centrelink started applying the Activity Test in remote communities. 8 weeks with no money because you didn’t show up for a pointless and stupid interview about how you were going to look for a job in your decrepit hamlet.

    And this from a government that wore its Christianity on its sleeve!

    I take malicious joy in watching Howard and his memory and his whole party destroyed. Because that is the only vengeance that those poor wretches will ever get.

  18. Without denying the points you make, zebidies, it should also be said that, in another sense, JH did a lot for the unemployed: specifically, his economic policies (including Workchoices) appear to have contributed to many more of them finding employment.

  19. ken at #18 is a fine example of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. The economic success of the past 15 years predominantly reflects the fact that we haven’t had a recession. NZ, which reformed even more than we did, had bad macro policy and correspondingly bad outcomes.

  20. There is no denying that over the last few years, a lot of Australians, have made a lot of money.
    Many “ordinary” Australians would have seen their investments in property and superannuation rise by $100,000 per year and should carry on right through to a comfortable retirement.
    That is quite a legacy

  21. nabokov, forgive him the handshake, pollies are over-trained there. he would do more in a day than you in a year, unless you are selling something too?

    sj, be kind to satp, at least he is clear about what can be expected from politicians. and may be kind to his mother,who knows.

    jwh took oz into an immoral war, debased the conduct of politics, unjustly oppressed humans in his power, and lied whenever the truth was inconvenient. i’m not sure he set new standards in this regard, but the best that can be said of him is as satp put it: “the 2nd most successful pm”. the worst in my view that can be said is: he was a successful politician.

    a nation that allows itself to be ruled by such a person ought never complain- it’s all your own work.

  22. jquiggin Says: December 2nd, 2007 at 9:12 am

    ken at #18 is a fine example of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. The economic success of the past 15 years predominantly reflects the fact that we haven’t had a recession. NZ, which reformed even more than we did, had bad macro policy and correspondingly bad outcomes.

    On the money. Moreover NZ went further down the New RIght micro-economic reform track, so beloved by Howard and the Scrooges in the LN/P, than we ever did or would do. Their economic results were distinctly underwhelming. We dodged a bullet when Keating did Hewson like toast in 1993,

    Economics is vastly over-rated as a tool for improving national welfare. Ecology, biology and technology are far more important.

  23. The gun laws went too far. They also demonstrated that competitive federalism is broken in Australia. Like the recent NT intervention in aboriginal communities the gun laws were enacted in an air of crisis with little in the way of real sober public debate. Whilst some people think this is the best way to pass legislation I’m inclined to disagree.

  24. Howard was very successful in achieving one of his primary aims when he became PM in 1996. He wanted Australian’s to become ‘relaxed and comfortable’. With inflation under control, unemployment at multi-decade lows, interest rates low – we are far more relaxed and comfortable than we were under Keating’s watch.

  25. JS @30: “Economics is vastly over-rated as a tool for improving national welfare. Ecology, biology and technology are far more important.”

    What are trying to say? Economics is essentially a study of human behaviour as they interact in the production-consumption-distributionactivities essential since the earliest dawn of human settlement in Mesopotamia.

    I have read a few comments from you today. Enough! I am astounded, amazed at your ignorant exhibitionism. I’m off to better pastures – the world is a big place.

  26. “I employ 3-to-4 times the number of people that I did when Howard came to power.”

    Yes, I guess more people have started drinking heavily over the past decade.

  27. An accurate assessment. Howard may have had great skill in politics, (as the art of being elected), but history will record him as a person who pandered to bigotry, had a fair degree of it himself, and was prepared to utterly debase any liberal notions of the honesty, the separation of powers, checks and balances etc, in his desire for “radical conservatism”.

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