John Winston Howard recently became the second longest serving prime minister in the history of Australia and (much to Peter Costello’s chagrin) he looks like being PM for some time yet. This longevity is an undoubted achievement, especially given that no one is ever likely to surpass the record of Sir Robert Menzies who was leader for 23 years.
But what has John Howard been like as national leader?
Before we examine his premiership, a few comments on the quality of his achievement. Menzies led at a time of unprecedented, sustained prosperity, a time when governments could hardly fail given the long period of economic growth resulting from post-war reconstruction. It is also arguable that Robert James Hawke might still be number two if the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party had not replaced their most successful prime minister (at least in terms of longevity) with the unpopular ex-treasurer Paul Keating. Indeed, Labor might have remained in power to benefit from the economic reforms it put in place in the 1980s and Howard would not have got his chance.
But now let us consider Howard’s record as the most powerful man in Australia. With (hitherto) unchallenged leadership of the Liberal Party and now the luxury of a Senate majority, Howard stands as one of the least fettered leaders in our national history.
Howard’s great achievement is without doubt the national economy. Never mind that the bread and butter economic issues are increasingly determined outside this country due to globalisation, the Howard government has managed to maintain a very good economic score card. That is, according to the narrow criteria we use to assess economic well being.
Of course, any nation with the social and political stability of Australia, with the substantial economic benefits that this brings, with a highly educated population, with one of the best communications, transport, legal and educational infrastructures in the world (although it is degrading fast), with abundant natural resources and located right next to the most expansionary markets in the world, should be doing okay.
Certainly, given these conditions, any government that privileges economic growth over all other considerations (such as social justice, environmental sustainability, cultural diversity, amenable labour relations, occupational health and safety, maintaining the general health and educational infrastructure, and maintaining the material infrastructure) is going to get results. And since the mass media and the corporate sector usually assess national well-being in terms of the usual limited economic indicators (while, for instance, unemployment and under-employment rates are rigged by category shifting), it is no wonder that Howard is so highly feted by these same vested interests.
In a real sense, Howard has pursued the same basic agenda of economic transformation originating in the US and Britain in the 1970s. Indeed, the argument can be made that Howard has done little more than implement the political strategy worked out in right wing corporate think tanks overseas, strategies essentially designed to reassert the interests of big business and rein in the welfare state.
And what about the rest of the national interest, has Howard been as effective there?
First, Howard has singularly failed to make any genuine improvements in regard to that running sore, the predicament of Indigenous Australians. Although he acknowledged this failure after the last but one election, all he has done since is to oversee demolition of the little structural power Indigenous Australians had in ATSIC.
Second, in regard to international relations Howard has shifted away from the more balanced reliance on international collective action, regional alliances and strong relations with the global superpower (once Britain, now the US). Instead, he has put Australia in the pocket of the US, now led by the most extremist government in decades, in regard to both military-diplomatic and economic relations. As a result, he has led Australia into an unfinished illegal war in Iraq and aligns us with aggressive Bush administration policies elsewhere.
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