Review | Thursday 18 November 2010
John Howard is the second longest serving prime minister in Australia’s history. His tenure lasted almost 12 years. His autobiography is essential reading for those interested in contemporary politics, in Australian history or the craft of practical politics.
The book spans Howard’s life from his childhood in inner suburban Sydney through to his government’s defeat in 2007. It is a fascinating story of achievement by someone who became one of Australia’s dominant political figures. John Howard was the youngest of four sons in a secure and loving family. He describes the early influences on his life at home and school and the way his personal and political values were formed. Educated in law at Sydney University his political ambitions grew on graduation and while he was establishing his law practice. Though his early attempts to enter NSW State politics failed, he began to develop his political skills under the tutelage of John Carrick who was then the General Secretary of the Liberal Party. Howard won pre-selection for the safe Liberal seat of Bennelong and in 1974 began a long and tumultuous trip to the Lodge. He was tested probably more than any other Australian politician by the pitch and toss of political fortune and this developed in Howard unparalled political toughness and resilience. He gained the Liberal Party leadership from Peacock in 1985 and then lost it in a coup by Peacock in 1989. He was rejected as leader by the Liberal Party until 1995 when he again acquired the leadership following Downer’s brief tenure. He realised his ambition with his victory over Keating in the 1996 election.
As in most autobiographies, the reader will be conscious of the inherent bias in Howard’s writings. He describes the media as “well balanced“ when it supported his or the Liberal view, whereas it was biased when it was supportive of the ALP. While it is highly readable and gives a lucid account of Howard’s views and opinions it does skim over many contentious issues surrounding the major political events and confrontations during his government. Despite his obvious and natural bias, Howard’s description of them gives a keen insight into his political thinking, attitudes and philosophy. The major issues discussed at length include his tightening of gun laws, the Pauline Hanson and One Nation phenomenon, the introduction of the GST, the confrontation with the Waterside Workers Federation, the liberation of East Timor, the Tampa Incident, the Children Overboard affair, the Iraq war, the Work Choices legislation, and of course the leadership imbroglio involving Peter Costello.
The book provides numerous salient examples of the pitfalls that lie in the path of all politicians and highlights how issues can come out of left field. One of the most notable examples was the bizarre bid for the prime ministership by Joh Bjelke-Petersen, which completely undermined any chance of Howard’s success in the 1987 Federal election. This issue is dealt with in some detail in and illustrates not only Howard’s resilience but his capacity to swallow his pride and control his anger and frustration for the sake of maintaining political unity with the National Party.
Howard classifies himself as a conviction politician whose basic political philosophy is a blend of economic liberalism and social conservatism. He rationalises his attitudes on the grounds that in times of rapid economic liberalisation people want the security of socially conservative policies. This attitude seems to be at odds with the way advances in technology, communication and medicine have changed the way people think about and react to social issues. His political pragmatism manifests itself in a highly dismissive attitude, bordering on contempt, towards so-called urban elites and academics. For Howard, “politics is about today’s reality not what might have been”. For the reader interested in the art of politics there is much to be learned from his observations on the do’s and don’ts of political behaviour. His comments and criticisms of members of his own party as well as his political opponents are frequently scathing.
Howard repeatedly emphasises the importance of symbolism in politics especially in foreign affairs and in his dealings with the Australian Defence Forces. Herein resides a paradox. He stubbornly refused to apologise to the stolen generation or to sign the Kyoto Protocol, both of which had positive symbolic resonance with the electorate. In the case of the stolen generation it came down to the semantics of stating regret rather than making an apology. These two issues constantly dogged his Prime Ministership and he refused to shift his position on them despite the urgings from members of his own party.
He places heavy emphasis on the importance of managing the economy, immigration policy and foreign affairs especially in relation to the US and China and East Timor. A criticism that could be levelled at his foreign affairs agenda was that his government was slow to recognise the future importance of India to Australia both in terms of defence in the regions bounding the Indian Ocean and as a key trading partner.
Despite Howard’s claims that there was no part of Federal responsibility that did not benefit from his Government’s tenure, a distinctive shortcoming of the book is that there is virtually no mention of his policies in important areas such as the Arts, Education, Science and Agriculture. Though he provides a detailed account of his attempts to get a national water policy for the Murray-Darling Basin one cannot help thinking that his response to this issue, exacerbated by the drought, was reactive rather than proactive. Similarly his reaction and response to climate change came late and undoubtedly contributed to the unpopularity of the government in its last term.
The book provides a valuable insight into the way people’s roles and personalities interact and frequently clash and how this impacts on the formulation of government policy. It illustrates that the management of a robust democracy such as Australia’s is messy and full of conflict and compromises between competing interests. The reader will come away with a better appreciation of the political forces which have shaped Australia during the last thirty years and the part played by Howard in that time.
It is probably too early to judge dispassionately Howard’s place in Australia’s political history. There is no doubt that it will be an important one. Given the long tenure of the Howard government and his assertion that “to change the government is to change the country”, we are entitled to ask the questions: ”Do we like the change? Have the legacies of the Howard years made us feel prouder, safer, more secure and better placed to address the issues, both international and domestic, that confront us now and in the future?”