This week we remember the election of John Howard's Government, twenty-five years ago. How the time as flown. Mostly Howard is remembered with affection. Some even have suggested that he was our greatest prime minister. Was he that good? Was his Government the best? Sober reflection is required, and hindsight helps.
This week marks a quarter of a century since the election of the first Howard Government, the first of four (1996 to 1998, 1998 to 2001, 2001 to 2004 to 2007).
What should we think of the Howard Government now?
The first thing that needs saying is that in simply winning the election and ridding the country of Paul Keating, a truly nasty creature, Howard did us an almighty favour. He almost had to do nothing else in order to please. This might also be said of Trump. Simply beating the criminal Hillary Clinton in 2016 was all he actually needed to do to win our eternal gratitude. He did many, many more good things, of course. Can the same be said of Howard?
Election night 1996 was an unalloyed joy for many. For the reasons already noted, but there was also a sense that a dogged conservative who had been written off so many times and who was hated by those hated by conservatives, had finally prevailed over his many enemies and critics. Karma, indeed. I knew people who had voted Labor all their lives but who loathed Paul Keating so much, they held their noses on 2 March 1996 and placed a number one against the Liberal candidate. So yes, it was “time”, as it had seemed in 1972, and Howard’s opponent was an asset for the Liberals and Nationals.
There were three things strongly in Howard’s favour, at least in the eyes of his supporters. First, Howard was a conservative who didn’t mind people knowing that he was a conservative. Second, as we knew from his time as Treasurer under Malcolm the First, we could reasonably expect competence from a government that he led. Third, his incoming ministers were outstanding, on a par with the great quality of the first Hawke Government. And that should be considered high praise indeed.
Who were these incoming ministers?
Abbott was merely a parliamentary secretary! (Turnbull was still eons away, and at that time obsessing about getting rid of the Royals. ScoMo was quietly faffing around in some marketing unit or another, in a blissful time when nobody had heard of him. Kevin Rudd wasn’t even in parliament, itself a blessing. Likewise, Julia Gillard).
We had Costello, Downer, Reith, McLachlan, Fahey, Newman, David Kemp, Vanstone, Hill, Alston, Wooldridge. Yes, even the wets were talented in those days. Ruddock, like Minchin, Rod Kemp and Warwick Smith, wasn’t even in the Cabinet. The outstanding Brendan Nelson was still years away.
Unlike now, even the Nationals contributed quality – Tim Fischer, outstanding if quirky; John Anderson, a thoroughly moral and decent man as well as a smart man and a thinker; John Sharp, prime ministerial quality and Nats old school; Vaile, an honest and highly competent politician; and Truss, another of doggedness and quality. Yes, there were four Nationals leaders in the one ministry! And another who was probably the most talented of the lot.
It was clearly the case, then, that the Howard ministry outshone both its predecessors and successors by a fair distance. To compare the current lot to the Howard Government is to invite embarrassment and derision. It is not even the Howard D team. There is no reason whatsoever to rethink the quality of the Howard ministry in the light of subsequent events. They were THAT good.
What about the policies pursued by Howard, and his own status as a great prime minister? The best, even.
Once at a Quadrant (magazine) dinner in Sydney, to launch a book on the Howard Government and to esteem its then recently departed leader, the keynote speaker, John Stone, took at least twenty minutes to bag the Howard Government for its failures before getting to the bit where he argued that Howard was Australia’s best ever prime minister. Yes, even better than the traditional favourite, Menzies. (The guest of honour was starting to move uneasily in his seat by this stage)!
I always had the view that Menzies, the other prime Liberal contender for “GOAT” (greatest of all time) status, was not so much overrated but just had it very easy for most of his sixteen and a bit years at the top. That was a time when he could catch a ship to England and back for a visit, confident that matters back home would be in safe hands.
Labor’s split in the 1950s just about assured the Coalition of near permanent government. The split was the gift that kept on giving, along with its political outcome – the emergence of the socially conservative and economically interventionist Catholic outfit, the Democratic Labor Party.
The Cold War also provided cover for the US-loving Liberal Government. Even the Vietnam War was initially popular, in the context of the Cold War.
The states, under the tutelage of old conservative warhorses like Bolte and Playford, largely kept to the federalist playbook and caused little trouble for Canberra, unlike the above-their-station, clueless mini-dictators we have running the states today.
The economy performed admirably during the “long boom” which, arguably Menzies more profited from than caused. There was all-but-full employment.
Menzies had some good ministers, but, as subsequent events after his retirement demonstrated, the ones still there after his departure weren’t that good. For example, Holt was increasingly thought to be on the political skids when he braced the rough seas once too often at Portsea. Gorton was a very, very loose cannon, prone to personal crusades and vendettas. McMahon, often (wrongly) thought to be our worst prime minister, was on a hiding to nothing, but achieved little. None of the three were remotely philosophical conservatives. Then we had Billy Snedden, of whom the less said the better. Then Malcolm, surely our most disappointing prime minister considering the vast expectations many had in 1975.
Back when Menzies had the opportunity to groom future leaders, he chose to see emerging talent as rivals and to get rid of them – Richard Casey and Garfield Barwick for starters. This made his own life less stressful but caused trouble for the future.
The Nationals under Fadden and then John McEwen generally behaved themselves.
Under Menzies, life for politicians was pretty easy. Government was much smaller, with far fewer things to do. And so the Prime Minister could just disappear overseas for months on end. To paraphrase John Howard himself, the times suited Menzies. The full force of the sixties social revolution that upended the world had still to bite when Ming strolled off into the sunset on Australia Day 1966. The old settlement of industry protection, the White Australia policy and secured trade unions remained firmly in place. We still even had the old currency (just).
Menzies, too, had little to worry about in terms of scrutiny. The media were pretty tame and the cloying, bullying impact of social media pile-ons was still half a century away.
In other words, the argument that Menzies was a better prime minister than Howard and led a better government is diminished by reason of context. Which brings us back to the quality of the Howard Government itself and its achievements.
Howard’s reign at the top was marked by a number of headland policies – economic management, fiscal conservatism (at least relative to his successors), tax mix reform, industrial relations reform, ministerial competence, fidelity to the US alliance, and at least some (admittedly limited) pushback in the culture wars.
On closer reflection, and with hindsight, some of the outcomes here were either decidedly dodgy, overrated, or achieved more by luck than good management.
Take tax reform. Introducing a Goods and Services Tax was not the economic disaster that its opponents portrayed. It just didn’t really achieve anything, it was massively oversold as “reform” and has burdened the small business community with awful and ongoing bureaucratic burdens. It is also a well-hidden tax, and as Milton Friedman among others pointed out many moons ago, hidden taxes are bad taxes. The GST also all but cost Howard the premature 1998 election, and shaved 18 seats from its massive 1996 majority. This was a massive electoral bungle on Howard’s part. It wasn’t bravery. Only a worthwhile reform – like tax indexation, for example – would warrant such a term.
What about gun reform? For many, this was a signature Howard achievement. Personally, I fail to see how making a generation of farmers and other innocents surrender their firearms after a single, crazed gunman shot up over fifty people at Port Arthur on a peaceful Sunday afternoon warrants the term “achievement”. We will never know if the gun legislation has ever saved a life. Much energy and political capital was expended early in the life of the Government for uncertain reward.
Then there was Howard’s (really Costello’s) enviable record of reining in the budget deficit and eliminating government debt. This was a substantial, if politically costly, achievement. But it was achieved on the back of a massive economic boom, a once-in-a-generation confluence of benign global conditions, great commodity prices and a consequent, ever-growing tax take. So a win, then, but an easy win.
Indeed, many pundits argued that, despite the Howard Government’s fiscal prudence in its early years, it squandered these gains in its later years when the Government was spending like a drunken sailor. The welfare state grew substantially, and ill-thought-through outsourcing of government functions to private contractors, superficially appealing to fiscal conservatives, was a disaster at many levels, not least in social security where people like Kevin Rudd’s wife built huge empires and standards of service ended up in free-fall.
And the fiscal suicide committed by governments since Howard – for which he cannot be blamed – and the apparent waning of the public’s appetite for reduced government spending have merely underlined the fact that having one fiscally prudent government is no guarantee of long-term fiscal success. No administration can grandfather in small government, alas. Hence Howard’s main achievement – again, really Costello’s – necessarily loses its gloss over time.
Howard’s major international play was to involve Australia in two unwinnable wars in the Middle East. It was all very well to be more than an “eighty per cent” ally to the USA, but really? Howard’s buddy, George W Bush, was in many senses an appalling US president, a big-spending “compassionate conservative” in the clutches of a neoconservative cabal determined to not let 9/11 rest without a few foreign adventures. Bush’s war on terror in the end simply ushered in a whole new security regime that helped to pave the way for the hideous incursions on our freedom we are now enduring as the result of a virus.
In the United Kingdom, many on both sides of the aisle regard Tony Blair as a war criminal for his uncritical support of Bush’s wars. John Howard was extremely fortunate not to have been similarly tarred. 9/11 and its aftermath – including the Tampa – probably won Howard the 2001 election, an election that he had seemed destined to lose. He was lucky in the short term. In hindsight, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars look like an utter disaster. A giant fail.
Many of those on the right were misled at the time into taking one for the US team in supporting these Bush misadventures. Such was the extent to which the neocons had infiltrated the conservative movement in the USA and had told what seemed at the time to have been a compelling story. And the ultimate irony was that it was Obama who finally nailed Osama Bin Laden. It took a real conservative – if a decidedly unusual one in Donald Trump – to show conservatives in America and elsewhere just what good US foreign policy looks like. Obviously, Trump was loathed by the Bushes. That should provide a hint as to who had the better foreign policy approach, and which of the two was on the wrong side of history. Howard’s failure to embrace Trump since 2016 is itself telling.
The Howard Government’s last big policy play was in the, by then, low priority that was industrial relations. The ill-fated Work Choices was anti-federalist, constitutionally fraught, politically problematic – it helped lose Howard the 2007 election – and simply not worth all the effort. The big strides had already been taken in bringing industrial relations into the twentieth century. Work Choices was an ill-conceived step too far. Labour relations as an issue has subsided into a third-tier concern for most of us, overtaken by the second industrial revolution that has been driven by technological disruption unseen since the coming of printing and with far reaching consequences for both capital and labour. Unions have outlived their usefulness and, frankly, any interest in them, and this could easily have been grasped in the mid-2000s. But industrial relations remained Howard’s raison d’etre in politics, and he just couldn’t let it go. Fail.
In opposing Kyoto, Howard at least held the line on the then emerging leftist obsession with climate change. But Howard was no climate sceptic, unlike Tony Abbott who, at once, had grasped the full significance of the scam. Howard’s appointment of the climate zealot Turnbull to the sensitive portfolio of the environment was a disaster in the making, and betrayed a political tin-ear. And no one should forget perhaps the worst Howard Government policy disaster of all – the introduction in 2001 of the Renewal Energy Target. We didn’t know this at the time, but we certainly do now. Howard created the vehicle through which labor later helped to destroy the economy. He handed the climate zealots a core weapon. Don’t even mention the Water Act, and the ever-expanding water trading regime. Fail.
What of the Howard Government’s sins of omission?
Many things were not done, and problems left to fester, despite the longevity of the government and its ample opportunities to act. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation was allowed to continue, unchecked, to our cost. Australia’s catastrophic higher education system went from bad to far worse on Howard’s watch.
Governance deteriorated in Canberra under Howard. The control of ministers by the Prime Minister’s office grew inexorably. The already ludicrous numbers of political apparatchiks employed by ministers to second-guess career public servants grew substantially. The use of targeted, politicised grants to garner electoral favour, a corruption of democracy if ever there was one, grew exponentially, usually under Nationals’ portfolios. Howard only encouraged the politicisation, therefore the decline, of the civil service. He made no effort to stop it, let alone to slow it. Ministerial responsibility is now a thing of the past, despite Howard’s own (mostly) high standards of enforcing propriety, especially during his first term, when half a dozen ministers were sacked.
Political correctness, perhaps checked, was nowhere thwarted. It was only really in Aboriginal Affairs that Howard stood tall and pushed back against the gathering storm clouds of wokeness. And indigenous matters command a range of views among conservatives, and not many would place them at the apex of the culture wars. Howard’s refusal to say “sorry” for past white wrongs achieved little, as we all knew it would be the first thing done by any government that might follow – including one led by Costello – and created enmity, not just on the left.
Howard never checked the march of China. He even had the then Chinese President address the Australian parliament. Howard never sought to slow the emergent mass immigration that Australia and other Western nations encouraged and whose negative impacts we are now suffering. In fact, Howard was always a big immigration man, despite the grief he received over refugee detention from the usual suspects on the left. He mainly wanted to be tough on illegal refugees so that Australians would warm to his real objective of growing the immigration-driven Ponzi scheme that is the Australian economy. More fails.
The sins of omission were far from trivial. They related to matters of great consequence.
One thing that Howard did brilliantly was to maintain the unity of the Coalition, no mean achievement as all leaders of the Liberals before and since have learned, often to their cost. But so what, really? The Liberal Party is now a busted flush, despite its post-Howard longevity (again) in office. Howard’s conservatism has not, in the longer term, prevailed. Indeed, it is on the rapid wane, as so-called “moderates” now run most branches of the Party and use every single available opportunity to crush the values held dear by Howard and to crucify the recusants who still hold to them.
Perhaps it needed someone of Howard’s undoubtedly immense political skills to hold the show together, and now that he is gone, and absent his leadership, there is little hope that the “broad church” he fought so hard to nurture can last. The best that can be said is that Howard managed the Liberal factions. He by no means eradicated factionalism, especially in his own State division where it festered most, nor did he attempt to. The Liberal Party’s slow decline as a repository of street level democracy, now totally out of control, was merely covered over during the Howard reign.
Unlike Menzies, Howard’s political end did not go well. He lost government and he lost his own seat (to a second-rate ideologue from the ABC). He had the chance to groom a perfectly plausible successor and he blew it. This caused that would-be successor to depart politics altogether, leaving the Liberal Party in the hands of the Howard B Team and eventually delivering the leadership to the truly repulsive interloper, Turnbull. Only Costello among the senior Liberals could have kept Turnbull at bay. Howard’s error here was massive and driven by ego. An epic fail on the part of one touted as being our very best. Costello, himself no conservative, was probably one of the better prime ministers we never had, along with Kim Beazley and (in a different way) Tony Abbott.
What of Howard’s performance as an ex-prime minister?
This has been decidedly a mixed bag. Howard’s popularity only increased after his departure as Australia was to experience a series of awful governments led by awful prime ministers. His successors, certainly, have made Howard look masterful and leaderly. On the back of his popularity in retirement, Howard was regularly wheeled out during election campaigns, was a hit at shopping centres and was regularly encouraged to make yet another comeback.
However, Howard couldn’t help himself in his continued engagement with Liberal Party politics. Because of Howard personally, we got Turnbull, who had been on the very verge of retirement when Howard talked him out of it. Howard’s involvement here is, literally, unforgivable. As a result of Turnbull, we lost Nelson and Abbott and got Morrison. Now the once broad church of conservative pragmatism (or pragmatic conservatism) is no more, and Howard, ironically, played a key part in this. Howard’s failure to publicly and strongly support Tony Abbott prior to and since his overthrow by Turnbull in 2015 must be as galling to him as it is surprising to Howard’s legion of supporters, a group which surely overlaps considerably with backers of Abbott.
So, where does hindsight leave our reconsideration of the merits of John Howard and his Government?
All in all, if Howard’s Government was the best, then, you might conclude, God help all the others. Perhaps we should all remember the Australian Olympic ice skater Steve Bradbury when forming, or re-forming our assessments of the Howard regime. Conditions were favourable and all the others made a giant mess of it.