John Howard is one of Australia’s most successful Prime Ministers. He is an exceptionally capable, tough-minded man who has changed the way politics is practised in Australia. Above all else Howard is a realist. He has made mistakes, and observed the mistakes of others, but he has always been a learner. He has gained and held onto political power while implementing a pragmatic, conservative agenda that has changed the way politics will be done in Australia.
Among other things, Howard Governments have restored faith in our immigration program, provided the Reserve Bank of Australia with the independence necessary to tackle inflation to help keep the economy sound, got rid of mounting and unsustainable public sector deficits and maintained a firm grip on the 'dries' in his own party who would have been best suited at maintaining their ideological purity from the opposition benches. Howard has successfully built on the Labor Party’s microeconomic reforms of the 1980s – that he supported – and helped create a powerhouse Australian economy.
Howard has substantially eliminated the carping negativity that the Australian left has consistently tried to inflict on Australians in relation to both our past and present. This has been a major achievement since the left in Australia has always sought to define – if not to manage - the political agenda on the basis of a sense of guilt, outrage, hysteria and injustice. There is more to life than listening to the complaints of these miserable people.
Howard has attacked stifling political correctness, divisive multiculturalism and has helped to restore good sense in relation to indigenous policies. He has also restored civility and decency to Australian political life. Howard is unassuming, polite and modest – the man Paul Keating described as the ‘bowser boy’ because he had worked in his father’s petrol station – is in every sense an impressive man. As Kim Beazley said – Howard became the most successful conservative politician in a generation.
Howard has not been a visionary politician who has driven Australia towards more lofty goals which coincide with the views of intellectual elites – he is too much of a realist to believe that abstract principles can provide an inclusive guide to politics. That is one reason Australians like him. Howard is a political thinker but, above all else, a master politician who is sensible – and sensitive enough in feeling the political winds - to eschew ideology and to pragmatically pursue policies that have kept him in power and kept his ideological opponents on the left and the right out.
Even if Howard loses the forthcoming 2007 election he has redefined political debates in this country and driven the Labor Party to the point where Labor policies, if not the quality of its potential ministers, are a clone of those in the Coalition. This is a strategically important outcome for Australia. Trade union officials who see Australian society as a zero sum game have, at best, a limited future in Australian Federal politics. The trade unions have had their role marginalised in labour markets and in the Australian economy as a whole.
Howard was a settled, nerdy young man from Sydney’s western suburbs who would never have chewed gum at school assemblies. Life was protestant, uncomplicated with decent values and uncomplicated virtues. His parents were Liberal Party supporters whose lives were based around their local church and hard work. They were comparatively wealthy – more so than I had come to believe. Howard was an average student at a good public school – he failed Leaving Certificate maths – but somehow got into Law at Sydney University. His hearing problems, his devotion to the Liberal Party and the loyal support he received from his wife Janet drove him into a political career. He was obviously politically ambitious and always had the gift of the gab.
Howard's earliest high status position was as a hard-working Treasurer under Malcolm Fraser a politician whom he was loyal to while he was Prime Minister but whose failure to deliver a much-needed reform agenda he disliked. Indeed, during these years, Howard had similar economic reform views to Paul Keating who subsequently became Howards unrelenting public enemy. Howard came to see Keating’s foul-mouthed outspokenness, his parliamentary laziness and his unwarranted elitism as an opportunity. Howard also liked the economic theories embodied in John Hewson’s Fightback but saw that Hewson was politically naive – again an opportunity that Howard could build on. He watched and learned and eventually gained an accurate sense of the tradeoffs between reform possibilities and political acceptability. He made mistakes but did not repeat them and learned from the mistakes of others.
Much has been made of the rejection by his party of Howard after the Fraser years. Up until the time of his removal as opposition leader Howard had been narrow and intolerant. He came to see this as a personal political failing and learnt to coexist with a broad range of people within the Liberal Party. This has been one of the ingredients of his outstanding political successes. Another success was his targeting of socially conservative Labor voters who disliked the ‘agenda-setting’ elitism of the Labor Party. Howard won these voters over not by a ‘small targets’ strategy, of the type that destroyed Kim Beazley’s chances, but by becoming known as a reliable conservative politician who occupied the 'middle ground'. He also capitalised on the failure of Labor leaders to capitalise on the strengths that they did have:
‘In addition Labor’s tactic under the leadership of Kim Beazley and Simon Crean of discounting their legacy of economic reform made it easier for Howard to claim the credit for the country’s prosperity.’Much has been made in the press about revelations regarding the Tampa incident. Howard sought a second opinion on the Attorney General’s initial view that turning back these illegal migrants was illegal. So what? I have never believed that Howard had a case to answer here. He was simply counteracting the bloody-mindedness of the Indonesian Government in refusing to stop the flow of illegal migrants following Australia’s intervention in East Timor. The policies he was implementing were similar to those pursued by Bob Hawke and others for many years. The stance he took was correct and, by restoring faith of Australians in the legal, controlled immigration program, he enabled its eventual expansion into a skill-based program not one that advanced interest group needs.
Much has also been said of Howard’s relation with Peter Costello. Howard has never been close to Costello because he regards him as too 'dry' and lacking in political nous. That Costello comes from Victoria is, regrettably, also probably important. The ongoing rifts between NSW and Victorian branches are an important part of Liberal Party history. But it is interesting that, in this book, Howard reveals that he believes Costello would make a good Prime Minister – leadership would force greater pragmatism on him. Of course that the pair were not close personally did not prevent an effective working relationship from developing.
Howard has been systematically underestimated and overcriticised by his critics. Indeed, he has been so extensively vilified - some might say demonised - that criticisms can now barely touch him. Howard’s answer is to his critics is to reject the pessimism of the old left and to argue that the non-pragmatic theorists on the right, who seek to guide us all with their abstract principles, can snipe from the sidelines but will not gain political power. This book shows the strengths of Howard and a few weaknesses. It is a good read.