John Howard: 10 Years On

Author: Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of the Sydney Institute

Many thanks for the invitation to address the Fabian Society. Like many organisations, the Fabian Society is not as important as some of its opponents believe – I am familiar with the Lunar Right’s conspiracy theory that the Fabians run the world. However, Fabians have played – and continue to play – a significant role in the public debate, from a social democratic perspective.

I grew up in the late 1940s and early 1950s in a Catholic, Labor-voting household. My father, Norman, was a rank-and-file member of the ALP and a financial member of the Federated Clerks Union. In my early years, the likes of John Curtin and Ben Chifley were honoured names in our family – albeit somewhat behind the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix. My first political memories involved attempting to help my father letter-box ALP election material and to watch him hand out how-to-vote cards on election day. It was a hopeless cause – we lived in Kooyong, Robert Menzies’ seat, and the upper and lower house State seats were also blue-ribbon Liberal. But Norman Henderson always stressed the importance of the Senate vote, so his contribution mattered. Moreover, there was the need to fly the Labor banner – even in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

Then, one day, my father (and thousands of others – who were labelled Groupers and worse) was expelled from the Labor Party. So now I helped him distribute material for the Anti-Communist Labor Party – which became the Democratic Labor Party. And, soon after, I watched my father hand-out DLP how to vote cards, which preferenced the Coalition ahead of Labor. Norman Henderson came to despise the Labor leadership team of Bert Evatt and Arthur Calwell about as much as he once despised Mr (as he then was) Menzies. Later I handed out DLP material myself – but I never became a member of the Democratic Labor Party.

I learnt from a young age just how bitter divisions within the labour movement could become – especially in states like Victoria and Queensland where the Split of 1954-1957 had bit deepest. It is note-worthy that the first prominent Labor figures to publicly acknowledge that Dr Evatt and his supporters had behaved in a counter-productive way in taking on the anti-communist Groupers circa 1954-1955 did not come from Victoria. They were – in chronological order – Neville Wran, Bill Hayden and John Faulkner.

In 1979 Neville Wran refuted the theory that there were “any inevitability about the Split of 1955” and commented that “splits which involve no fundamental issue of principle, but which merely reflect an excess of factionalisation, can never be condoned or justified”. In his autobiography, published in 1996, Bill Hayden accused Dr Evatt of bequeathing “Labor a legacy of more than two decades of internal division and self-evisceration”. In his chapter in True Believers (2001), John Faulkner wrote of the lessons of the Split of 1954-1957: “The formation of the DLP and its relentless pursuit of electoral revenge upon Labor reinforced the view that it was better to contain political enemies inside the Party.” Sure is.

Both Bert Evatt and Arthur Calwell led Labor to three defeats each – 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1963 and 1966. It is a matter of fact that, unlike virtually all past ALP leaders who remained loyal to the Labor cause, Mr Calwell has been all but forgotten and that Bert Evatt’s reputation in Labor voting circles has substantially diminished over the past two decades.

Some commentators have compared Labor’s contemporary predicament with the Split of half a century ago. This is a considerable exaggeration. What gives some weight to the comparison is the build-up of all-pervading hatred within the labour movement directed towards their political brothers/sisters and comrades. What deauthorises the comparison is that no split has taken place.

As you know, Sir Robert Menzies is John Howard’s hero. Yet Mr Howard is not a clone of Sir Robert. In fact, their political styles are different. John Howard is more like a Labor politician than any other leader of Australia’s political conservatives, all the way back to 1901. Mr Howard is very much like the tribal political leaders who have traditionally prevailed in the ALP. Qualified supporters get government funded positions; qualified opponents do not. This is in marked contrast to the governments headed by the two long-term Liberal Party prime ministers – Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser. When I worked for John Howard two decades ago, I recall him commenting that to be a Liberal Party supporter during the Fraser years was all but a disqualification from government preferment. That certainly cannot be said of the Howard Government.

Robert Menzies was politically skilled but not to the same extent as John Howard. Most successful leaders have a degree of luck. Yet the Menzies Government had more good fortune than most – due to Bert Evatt’s demented decision to initiate the Labor Split in the mid 1950s and due to the weak leadership of Arthur Calwell. In 1996 John Howard defeated Paul Keating’s successful Labor government at a time of relative economic prosperity and went on to demolish Mark Latham in 2004 – Labor scoring only 46 per cent and 47 per cent of the total vote in 1996 and 2004 respectively. Kim Beazley has many public and private critics within the labour movement. Yet he is the only ALP leader to come close to defeating John Howard – scoring 51 per cent in 1998 and 49 per cent in the difficult post 9/11 climate in 2001.

Like Mr Beazley today, Mr Howard has experienced his political gethsemane. It occurred during his first time round as Liberal leader in Opposition – when the Coalition was criticised by both the advocates of the free market (e.g. former Liberal backbencher John Hyde) and the supporters of greater government regulation (e.g. former National Party Queensland premier Joh Bjelke Petersen). It was this division that made the Coalition political victory all but impossible in 1987 – and the enduring bitterness adversely affected Andrew Peacock in 1990. The inexperienced John Hewson in 1993 (like the inexperienced Mark Latham in 2004) essentially brought about his own defeat. And then came the Coalition victory on 2 March 1996 – just over ten years ago – the consequences of which are the subject matter for tonight’s forum.

John Howard is very conscious of the fact that every public criticism of Labor or its leadership team is of direct benefit to the Coalition. The Liberals love it every time, say, Phillip Adams bags the ALP and mocks Kim Beazley as “worse than useless”. This is the very same Mr Adams who supported Jim Cairns to defeat Gough Whitlam in Labor’s leadership ballot in 1968 (as documented in Paul Strangio’s Keeper of the Faith: A Biography of Jim Cairns). Astute judgement, eh? Yet Phillip Adams’ stance is much admired by the inner-city luvvies who follow his pronouncements on ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live and in his column in The Australian.

The problem with those who criticise Labor from the left is that they have little idea of just how difficult both opposition and government actually is. What’s more, they detest John Howard so much that they take out their anger on Beazley Labor – blaming its alleged weaknesses for the evident popularity of the Prime Minister and his government. The satirist/ABC arts guru Guy Rundle is a case in point. In his 2004 Quarterly Essay titled The Opportunist: John Howard and the Triumph of Reaction, Mr Rundle actually described the (alleged) “forces of reaction” as stretching “from media magnates and redneck populists to Kim Beazley and John Faulkner”. How about that? The Fabian Society’s New South Wales president is part of the “forces of reaction” – according to Guy Rundle, that is.

Yet the truth is that the Howard Government is not dramatically different from its Hawke and Keating predecessors. The Hawke/Keating Government (i) floated the currency, (ii) introduced financial deregulation, (iii) put the budget into surplus (it went back into deficit in Paul Keating’s final years), (iv) commenced taxation reform, (v) began the privatisation process, (vi) reformed the health, education and welfare systems and (vii) commenced compulsory employer-funded superannuation. And more besides – including the payment of generous benefits to families with young children, which has been accentuated by the Howard/Costello Government.

In the introduction to my 1990 book Australian Answers – and in my Sydney Morning Herald column in early 1990s – I referred to what I classified as the “Federation Trifecta” which prevailed during the first decade after the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia in January 1901. This was the essentially bi-partisan policy embodying a highly centralised industrial relations system, protection all round and White Australia. Paul Kelly added state paternalism and imperial benevolence to the above mentioned policies and came up with the term “Australian Settlement” in his 1992 book The End of Certainty.

On reflection, Australian Settlement is a better label than Federal Trifecta – so it is not surprising that this term stuck. However, the post-Federation consensus essentially involved three – not five – policies. White Australia was junked by the Coalition and Labor sometime between 1966 and 1973. It was the Hawke Government which dismantled protectionism and it was the Keating Government which commenced the deregulation of Australia’s centralised industrial relations system.

In other words, Harold Holt’s politically conservative government commenced the abolition of the Federation Trifecta – and the social democratic governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating completed the task.

Sure, John Howard supported the initial dismantling of the Federation Trifecta – but he did so from Opposition. In government, John Howard and Peter Costello have continued the reform process – they returned the budget to surplus and undertook additional widescale reforms in such areas as privatisation, industrial relations, taxation, education, welfare and health.

Yet it makes sense to view the economic reform process of the past 23 years as a continuing act – which made it possible for the Australian economy to withstand the Asian economic downturn of 1997, the United States recession of 2000 and the worst domestic drought in a century and still grow at around 3 to 4 per cent with declining unemployment and low inflation. Also, migration in-flows in the latter period of the Howard Government have actually exceeded the high levels that pertained during the Hawke Government.

Australia is dramatically different to what it was in 1980. But it is not dramatically different to what it was in 1996 – despite of what so many obsessive Howard-haters allege. This is even the case with some of the Howard Government’s most controversial social and foreign policies. It was the Keating Labor Government which introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers – when there was scarcely a world of dissent from the inhabitants of any Leichhardt coffee shop. And it was Bob Hawke who farewelled the Australian Navy in 1990 for its commitment in what became the First Gulf War – some time before military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime was sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. The Howard Government, like its Labor predecessor, has been able to combine a vibrant Australia-America Alliance with good relations with the nations of the Asia Pacific region.

What many critics of John Howard’s politically conservative government in Australia – and of Tony Blair’s social democratic government in Britain – will not concede is just how much the world changed following, (i) the Islamist terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, (ii) the Bali murders of 12 October 2002 and (iii) the attacks on the British transport system of 7 July 2005 – and more besides.

Members of the intelligentsia – academics, teachers, professionals, journalists, retired diplomats and the like – do not have to take, or refrain from taking, decisions for which there are consequences and for which they will be held responsible. George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard are in a completely different position.

I can understand the case for and against Australia joining the Coalition of the Willing (US, Britain, Australia and Poland) in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But I also know that the Howard Government’s decision was consistent with a hundred years of Australian foreign policy – under both politically conservative and social democratic administrations. Also, after the attacks of 9/11, it was inevitable that democratically elected leaders would enact relatively harsh national security legislation in order to protect the citizens of democracies.

In this case, the Howard Government has acted in a manner which is traditional for war-time administrations in Australia and elsewhere. Despite what many of its critics say, it is not a radical government. Rather John Howard and his colleagues are very pragmatic. The Prime Minister has been willing to accept 70 to 80 per cent of what he wanted when, due to the composition of the Senate, this was all that was realistically available. However, following 1 July 2005 – when, in Peter Costello’s words, the Coalition now has a Senate majority “on a good day” – Mr Howard has gone for the full 100 per cent.

In this sense Dr Judith Brett misread John Howard when she concluded her 2005 Quarterly Essay – titled Relaxed & Comfortable: The Liberal Party’s Australia – with the suggestion that the Prime Minister just might “bend and bow before sustained political pressure” on his industrial relations legislation and keep “his government to the moderate middle of national experience”. John Howard is pragmatic – but not that pragmatic. He is a pragmatic reformer.

It is the critics of the Howard Government who have engaged in extremist and hyperbolic language on the national security issue – not the Prime Minister, or Peter Costello, or Mark Vaile. Witness the tendency of some leftists to equate John Howard with Adolf Hitler and/or Josef Stalin and to draw comparisons between his government and South Africa under the apartheid regime.

There has been a degree of self-indulgence and self-importance about this debate. Witness the editors of Arena Magazine, Arena Journal, Dissent, Eureka Street, Meanjin and Overland – who wrote to The Age on 29 October 2005 – alleging that the national security legislation (which was initiated by the Coalition and supported by Labor at Federal and State levels) “may readily be used to stymie free and open debate”. Witness the playwright Stephen Sewell – who wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald on 24 October 2005 maintaining that “every Australian” faces “the prospect of being disappeared”. And witness Gabriella Coslovich – who complained in The Age on 5 February 2006 that the national security legislation might lead to the arrest of the likes of leftist comedian Ron Quantock but that, on the other hand, it was more likely that “nothing will happen”. It seems that you can have it both ways, after all. Mr Quantock behind bars – bad; Mr Quantock free – also bad.

In my recent address to the “John Howard’s Decade” conference at the Australian National University on 3 March 2006, I documented how a number of John Howard’s opponents are on the public record as declaring that they do not know anyone who votes for the Coalition. I also cited how, in Intelligentsia-Land, it was possible to get through an entire day without hearing anything but criticism of the Howard Government. And I cited some examples of well educated commentators who blame the Prime Minister for every outcome of which they disapprove – from bad manners to alleged mean-spirited attitudes.

A similar lack of reality prevails among the many critics of the Howard Government’s national security legislation. As I read this act, there is no prospect of Guy Rundle, Stephen Sewell or Ron Quantock going to prison for reasons of national security any time soon. They are not that important. As Judith Brett recognised in her essay Relaxed & Comfortable : “Howard horrifies many of the cultural and educational elites in part because he has no interest in them and in the contribution they make to national life.”

The national security legislation targets real or potential terrorists. Once upon a time, Mr Sewell may have got a guernsey in this regard. After all, in June 1993 he had this to say about his (Marxist) past: “That young man I was – if he had achieved power with his friends, they would have created Year Zero in Australia; we would have been the Khmer Rouge; we would have been hanging people.” (See Richard Glover’s interview with Stephen Sewell in Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1993). But that was some decades ago. Nowadays Stephen Sewell is just a middle-age baby-boomer in search of yet another taxpayer funded grant. I doubt that he is on any agency watch-list.

In any event, in what have been called the culture wars, the Howard Government has not been as successful as many of its barrackers claim. For example, it has failed to reform the ABC or SBS. However, it has not been anywhere near as bad as some of its critics assert. For example, my friend Ross Fitzgerald’s prophecy that the “Howard Government’s increased power might usher in a new Dark Age in Australian democracy” remains unfulfilled – and Dr Fitzgerald’s views continue to be heard in the land.

The Howard Government is not put off by exaggerated criticism by the likes of Stephen Sewell, Julian Burnside, Margo Kingston and Robert Manne – ironically, the final three all voted for John Howard to replace Paul Keating in March 1996. The Prime Minister knows that his government enjoys majority support for its economic and national security policies. While this lasts, the Coalition is likely to remain in office. As for John Howard’s political future, I have an open mind – and I suspect that he has yet to make up a decision whether to contest the next election due in late 2007 or handover the prime ministership to Peter Costello some time later this year.