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 30 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 catalogue, 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.