John Howard: 10 Years On - Australian Fabians Former Site - For Page Transfers

John Howard: 10 Years On


Judith Brett
22 March 2006
Strong Democracy and Government
by: Judith Brett

Author: Judith Brett teaches Politics at La Trobe University

In the time I have today I want to suggest three possible legacies of John Howard’s decade of government: one to his party, one to our traditions of governance, and one to the nation's future.

First: Howard's legacy to the Liberal Party. Howard has re-positioned the Liberal Party as a party of popular nationalism, ridding it of any vestigial associations with a blue blood, ruling class and so solidifying its claim to be a party for the nation. The Liberal Party has always claimed this - that it puts the national interest ahead of sectional interests, that it governs for all Australians not just for some, but it has also always been vulnerable to the argument that it was primarily a party of government or of state power, the vehicle for the governing classes - those who are born to rule.

In my work on Howard I have argued that a key reason for Howard's political success has been his skill at re-working the language and symbols of Australian nationalism to give the Liberal party a plausible language of unity and social cohesion. This was particularly important when he became leader, after the Liberals 5 election defeats and 6 leadership changes, and after the party's embrace of economic liberalism with its accompanying hard and divisive rhetoric.

Howard has achieved and held on to political power in part because he has so successfully attached himself to Australian national culture and experience. In contrast to Keating who devoted his period as Prime Minister to a program of radical cultural change from above, Howard promised that he would make Australians again feel comfortable and relaxed about themselves and their past. In speech after speech, from 1995 onwards, Howard evoked the widely shared symbols of Australian popular nationalism, the symbols of mateship, easy-going informality, practical improvisation and the fair go. Thus Howard presented himself as the protector of the national culture against the social engineering of the left-wing elites who had got their hands on state power. This was a political reversal of some daring. The values and practices of popular nationalism had until then been Labor's symbolic territory - though they had let them drift somewhat in their 13 years of government. They had once provided the core of the Labor Party's nationalist symbolism and its claim to represent the people, in contrast to the interests of the rich and powerful who, Labor argued, backed the Liberals.

The Liberal Party's base and electoral appeal was always wider than Labor imagined, but even so before Howard the Liberal Party could plausibly be presented by its opponents as the party of the comfortable and respectable middle class with little sympathy for the battling worker. Howard has changed this, using populist imagery to attack Labour as the party of the out-of-touch and arrogant elites and to position the Liberal Party as the party of ordinary Australians and commonsense experience.


The second Howard legacy I want to discuss is to our traditions of governance. Howard has strengthened the democratic majoritarian aspects of the Australian federal government at the expense of the liberal. This democratic majoritarianism goes hand in hand with his popular nationalism.

For me one of the stand out characteristics of the Howard period of government is Howard's understanding of political power and his determination to use it, and where possible to consolidate it. A consequence of this has been, as Paul Kelly recently observed in a lecture to the Academy of the Social Sciences, to further strengthen Australia's tradition of Prime Ministerial Governance. This, it must be stressed, is not to be confused with Presidential Governance, and Kelly is not arguing that Howard has made the position of the Prime Minister more Presidential.

Howard's strength as Prime Minister has been based on the strength and discipline of his Cabinet, and on the collective and individual control he, his ministers and their offices have exercised over the public service to produce a tightly focussed government. Here Howard is continuing a process that has been in train since Whitlam, in which the political will of the elected government is exercised with increasing confidence and determination. It is exercised over other institutions of state - in particular the parliament and the public service; and it is exercised over institutions of civil society which depend in various ways on the government. Howard as the latest Prime Minister in the series has taken it further, and the result is a further strengthening of the democratic majoritarian aspects of our political system at the expense of its liberal aspects.

Let me spell out this argument a little. The role of the executive had been strengthened by the increasing importance of ministerial advisers, and the accompanying insistence on a politically responsive public service. And after an initial insistence of individual ministerial probity, which saw him lose 5 ministers very quickly, Howard has returned to the usual Australian practice of using the government's parliamentary majorities to protect individual ministers, though it could be argued that the extent of the scandals and the ignorance and maladministration from which some ministers have been protected is greater than in the past. Similarly his ruthless use of his Senate majority since July last year is not new. Remember 1975. And Keating would have treated the Senate similarly if he could. New I think, even in if just a further step in the same direction of increasing executive power centred on the office of the Prime Minister, is the way in which Howard has bypassed parliament as the centre of national debate to establish his own direct dialogue with the Australian people. He has made unprecedented use of talk back radio to establish a continuous dialogue between himself and some of the Australian people, bypassing the more critical and well-informed press gallery, and the parliament. Also new for a Liberal Prime Minister is his virtual abandonment of the Liberal Party’s commitment to states rights.

In his recent (2006) Australia Day address to the National Press Club, Howard made clear his view of the primacy of elected representatives.

I have never been persuaded by those who argue that the road to good governance is via taking more and more decision out of the hands of the people's elected representatives. It bypasses my comprehension that people should devote their life and their energy to securing a place in one of the Parliaments of the nation and then spend much of their time suggesting that decision should be passed by that parliament to unelected individuals or unelected bodies.

Here Howard is arguing that Australia does not need a Bill of Rights, but notice his stress on the central role of the people's elected representatives. Under Howard the elected government acts not simply as the most legitimate voice of the nation, but often as if it is the only legitimate voice. He and his ministers use the argument regularly against the `unelected' judges on the Federal and High Court if they stray into making public statements the government regards as political. Some government ministers appeal a related argument, claiming their responsibility to oversee the proper use of taxpayers money as the reason for increasing direct political control. For example, over the past 10 years university research agendas have been tied ever more tightly into government priorities, and in two recent rounds of the Australian Research Council ministerial veto was exercised over the peer review based recommendations of the Council. Similar is the current controversy about the CSIRO over the extent to which scientists have been required to toe the line on government set research agendas, with the insistence on what I regard as an untenable distinction between scientific and policy advice. The ABC as a publicly funded broadcaster is treated as irredeemably biased. Government imposed changes on these institutions are justified in terms of the need for accountability to the government and through it to the people.

Publicly funded institutions are of course the most vulnerable. But other institutions are also warned off getting too political if they criticise the government. The churches, for example, were told to keep out of the debate about industrial relations. And the industrial relations legislation, in my view, is designed to weaken - perhaps destroy - the trade union movement, with the further benefit of weakening the Labor Party even further by removing an important part of its organisational and financial infrastructure.

In comparison with the elected government, all other institutions and groups are presented as biased, as sectional, or as special interest groups, and their claims to be concerned with the public good or the well-being of the nation are questioned, irrespective of the public service and engagement with the fate of the nation embedded in their traditions and practices. Howard does this most vigorously of course when these institutions are criticising his government, but they show his determination to keep control of the public agenda by de-legitimising and obstructing the participation of opponents.

This confident majoritarianism is what the Liberals would have once expected of Labor governments. Liberals, alert to the dangers of the tyranny of the majority, would have used historically-based small liberal arguments about the centrality of parliament, the importance of minorities, the need for checks and balances, and the long-term contribution to the public good of a range of confident and strong intellectual, cultural, religious and social institutions with a stake in the future of the nation and with their own traditions of public participation and service to the public good. What is now clear, and it was clear to Victorians under Jeff Kennett, is that Liberals in power are every bit as comfortable with democratic majoritarianism as Labor.

This is the result of the transformation of the Liberal Party from a party mainly concerned to govern the status quo to a party committed to radical reform of the economy. Hence it has become as aggressive towards institutions standing in its way as Labor once was, when it believed not just in the abolition of upper houses but also of the states. But the Liberal Party has got there by a different route. The rise of neoliberal economics was accompanied by Public Choice theory with its cynical realist view that all groups and institutions, no matter what their claims to be concerned with the national interest, are in fact driven by self-interest. This included an attack on the public bureaucracy, and on government funded agencies of all kinds, and was linked to the argument that these were in the hands of unelected, arrogant elites. These arguments have been very damaging in Australia. In practice, given the history of state society relations in Australia, our institutions of civil society have been more dependent on government than in many other countries. And so public choice theory arguments, developed in response to the very different history of state society relations in the US, have had I think a more destructive affect here than any where else, except perhaps New Zealand, and weakened our legacy of public institutions and our sense of public membership.

The third and final legacy of John Howard's period of government is to our awareness of the future. Temporality is an intriguing issue in politics. The speeches of politicians in the early decades of last century were full of projected futures - justifying the policies and actions of present governments and politicians in terms of their long term contribution to the future of the nation. Governments were building a nation, investing in infrastructure for the future, educating future citizens. I get little sense from the way Howard governs that he thinks of the future much beyond the next electoral cycle. This is part of his extraordinarily self-disciplined focus on the daily political game.

In the lecture I referred to before, Paul Kelly pointed to Howard's innovation of the permanent campaign as a feature of the way he has transformed governance. Howard operates in a 24 hour media cycle for the 1000 days of each three year term. Tight control over public servants, plausible deniability, rapid shifts in agenda are all means developed during Howard's period of government to maintain his dominance of the media. But all this has nothing to do with whether the long-term public interest is being served by the government continually coming up trumps. In keeping its eye so firmly on the ball of the present, the future seems to elude the government's view - with the notable exception of Peter Costello's concerns about how the baby boomers are to live in retirement.

The other major agent of temporality that has come to dominate Australia's sense of political possibility under Howard is the market driven by competition and individual choice. The Howard government has continued the neoliberal agenda of the 1980s, in many areas replacing the state as an agent in the distribution of resources with the market. The consequence has been a reduced capacity of the state to engage in long term planning and to embark on projects based on estimations of future needs. The skills shortages Australia is currently experiencing, and the running down of national infrastructure, are examples of the consequences of a reliance on present-oriented market mechanisms rather than future-oriented deliberative planning.

Howard once said he preferred to take an optimistic view of the past. I always thought this a puzzling claim - optimism is properly an attitude about the future - one which puts a premium on hope, and on faith in the inherent order of things. Howard made this claim in one of his forays into the debate about settler indigenous relations in Australian history. Howard has taken a strong personal interest in arguments about Australia's history and has been a champion of those who see it mainly as a triumphant story of progress and development, albeit with a few black spots. Whatever we think about Howard's understanding of Australian history, the point I want to make is that after 10 years in power we know far more about how he sees the past 100 years than how he sees the next.

The question of the time frame within which Howard governs is urgent because of what I and many others see to be the most difficult problems facing the future not just of Australia but of the planet: climate change and global warning, related environmental issues such as declining water quality and land degradation, and beyond that the end of the petroleum based economy as the world runs out of oil.

Howard has not only done little about any of this. He has also weakened Australia's capacity to respond to these future problems. He has done this in three ways. First his government's inattention to industry policy which would increase the diversification of Australia's export base, has further entrenched the dependence of the Australian economy on the export of fossil fuels, particularly our leading export, coal. Second by failing to invest enthusiastically in renewable, non fossil fuel energies, he has maintained Australia's dependence on coal for energy generation, and weakened the capacity of Australian science and industry to contribute to the future of the planet. In response to government policy, the CSIRO recently shifted its research priorities way from renewable energy to `clean coal' technologies. Third, he has weakened the capacity of the scientific and research institutions - like the CSIRO and university based science - on which we will have to rely if it turns out, as is very likely, that the government got it wrong.

Howard of course, is one of many world leaders in deep denial over the likely future of the world's climate and environment, but, for better or worse, he's ours. The barrage of media commentary on Howard's 10 years treats 10 years as a long time in human history. It isn't. Howard's long term historical legacy in my view is likely to be similar to the now faceless and nameless men who condemned Galileo for claiming that the world went round the sun. The natural world has its own laws and in the end we are subject to them, whether we consent to them or not.

. Judith Brett, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class: From Alfred Deakin to John Howard, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2003, chap 9; Relaxed and Comfortable: The Liberal Party's Australia, Quarterly Essay no 19, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2005.

. Paul Kelly, `Rethinking Australian Governance: The Howard Legacy', Cunningham Lecture, Occasional Paper, 4/2005, Academy of Social Sciences, Canberra.

. Ian Ward, Talkback radio, political communication and Australian politics, Australian Journal of Communication, 29/1 (2000), 21-38,

. `A Sense of Balance: The Australian Achievement in 2006', speech to National Press Club, 25 January 2006.

. Cited in Geoff Kitney et al, Let's look on the bright side, SMH 26 Oct 1996, p. 4.

. Katherine Murphy, `Energy executives join board of CSIRO', Australian, 22 February 2006.

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