John Howard has been Australia
's 25th Prime Minister
Despite his sheer ordinariness in appearance, John Howard is probably the most enigmatic Australian Prime Minister ever known in modern times. He certainly has been successful politically - after ten years as Prime Minister he has outlasted most other world leaders and his lifespan in holding the high office is second only to Robert Menzies. His achievements have come through a matrix of political astuteness, luck, discipline and the fortune of facing a weak opposition.
Woe betide any political opposition who misreads him.
John Winston Howard was born on 26 July, 1939. One presumes his middle name came later when his parents regarded Winston Churchill as a heroic wartime Prime Minister, and not as the incompetent First Lord of the Admiralty responsible for the mess at Gallipoli. Like his namesake John Howard grew up with a slight speech impediment, partially caused by being deaf in one ear. John Howard's parents were Methodist (although he know professes to be Anglican). His father, a veteran of the First World War, owned and ran a petrol station where young John occasionally worked.
He grew up in the Sydney suburb of Earlwood, attending Canterbury Boys High School and later University of Sydney, where he majored in law (he is the only Liberal Prime Minister to have had a state school education). After graduation he was admitted as a solicitor to the New South Wales Supreme Court, and prior to entry into parliament he served as partner in a Sydney firm. In 1971 he married his wife Janette Parker, a teacher and fellow Liberal Party member, and they later had three children.
At the age of eighteen he joined the Liberal Party of Australia, and he was actively involved in campus politics. From 1962 to 1964 Howard served as President of the Young Liberals, and concurrently held office on Liberal Party's State Executive (Howard in this time also campaigned for the Conservative Party in Britain’s 1964 election). He failed at his first attempt to win a seat in the 1968 New South Wales election, but later successfully won the seat of Bennelong in the 1974 federal election. The following year after the dismissal of Gough Whitlam's government and the subsequent election, John Howard was given by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser the junior portfolio of Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs.
Two years later at the age of 38 Howard was promoted to the position of Treasuer, later taking on the additional responsibilities of Minister of Finance. The 'boy treasurer' was a radical acolyte of the 'new right' school favouring neo-liberalism and fiscal conservativism, seeking to curb the power of trade unions and centralised industrial arbitration, reduce taxation, privatise government enterprises and rein in government spending. Nevertheless Fraser was more temperate and pragmatic, and refused to progress with these reforms even while the Coalition held control of both houses of Parliament. In 1982 Howard was made Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, consolidating his power base with the party's 'dries'. Howard and Fraser pair were often in conflict - at one point he threatened to resign as Treasurer over the size of the 1982 Commonwealth budget that Fraser was pushing - and an ideological schism between the two continues to this day.
Howard was returned to the Opposition in 1983 when the Hawke government won power.
Leader of the Opposition
The Liberal Party leadership was vacated following their 1983 defeat. Howard competed with the more urbane former Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock for the party leadership but failed and remained Deputy Leader of the Opposition. Peacock led in the 1984 election against the hugely charismatic Bob Hawke; he failed, but still was allowed to remain leader.
And he could have remained leader if he hadn't attempted to unseat Howard from the position of Deputy Leader in May 1985. Howard apparently was only interested in remaining Deputy Leader, but when Peacock's involvement in the attempted revolt were revealed his leadership credentials were tarnished. Through the backing of the party Howard was elected Leader unopposed.
As if this was not enough irony, Howard's tenure of Leader of the Opposition coincided with Hawke implementing much of the neo-liberalist policies that Howard championed. Although the former trade unionist would not touch wage regulations, Hawke undertook quite a radical reform program: the Australian dollar was floated, government enterprises were sold off and economic activity was deregulated (including controls on foreign investment, something which many Australians found unappealing). Howard led the party in the 1987 election but the coalition's campaign became unhinged by another powerbroker of the Australian right - maverick Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Bob Hawke coasted back into power.
While there were similarities in economic policies between the two major parties, on social matters Howard was not at all afraid to spell out his anti-permissive vision.
Howard's conservative nature was articulated on matters relating to the family, gay marriage, multiculturalism and, most controversially, immigration. In 1988 comments about the rate of Asian immigration being too high damaged his standing within and outside the party. An emboldened Andrew Peacock the following year restated his claim on the leadership of the party and successfully deposed Howard.
"Lazarus with a Triple Bypass"
Howard was briefly relegated to the backbench, and his political future seemed even more dismal when he was not the first choice to replace Andrew Peacock when he stepped down after failing to win the 1990 election. Instead it seemed the public wanted a new face, and the party responded by appointing Dr John Hewston as Leader of the Opposition. A well-seasoned economist seemed like the most appropriate man to run Australia when the government struggled to reign in interest rates and unemployment in the recession of the early 1990s, and by now Labor's popularism was desperately loosing traction with voters. The 1993 election was regarded as "unloseable election", but the pugnacious new Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating managed to defeat Hewston, largely by scaring the public about a Goods and Services Tax that the Liberals wanted to implement.
Hewston, shaken by the experience of fighting Keating, was very much a lame duck leader, insecure from challenges from Howard and other colleagues. The party instead chose to appoint Alexander Downer in 1994 - a blue-blooded former diplomat with an overly cultivated accent. He lasted eight months before a series of gaffes led to an untimely and undignified departure. Google 'The things that batter' if you really desire to know more.
Leader of the Opposition II
John Howard returned to the role of Leader of the Opposition in 1995. The time away from the limelight made him understand a bit more about the electorate, their aspirations and their fears. Indeed Keating's performance as Prime Minister perhaps suggested that you really need a populism and a foreceful personality to get anywhere in the new landscape of Australian politics. The zeitgeist of the mid-1990s suggested that while the public had concerns about how the world was changing rapidly and the dissolution of the social contract, they could also see opportunities arising for anybody prepared to expend effort and take risks. Howard modified his stance to become more attuned with the voters. This time instead of discussing economic reform he levelled charges of 'elitism' against the government and other aligned institutions. He derided Keating's aristocratic tastes and insular visions of republicanism, reconciliation and integration with Asia as being out-of-touch with working class 'battlers'.
On May 2, 1996, John Howard was elected Prime Minister of Australia in a political landslide.
Prime Minister (1996 to 1998)
Howard's first objective was to reduce government debt, something that he believed contributed to monetary weakness and fiscal indiscipline. Government programs were slashed, social security policy was oriented towards reducing dependency on government-funded income support and HECS and other charges for government services were introduced or increased. Telstra was partially privatised, rebates were offered to holders of private health insurance policies and attempts were made to extinguish indigenous claims to pastoral land. There was also a nation-wide buy-back of firearms, prompted following the deaths of 35 people in the Port Arthur massacre that occured shortly after Howard's election.
Howard had mixed success with his agenda. The Greens, the Australian Democrats and Tasmanian independent Brian Harradine held the balance of power within the Senate, and either obstructed or watered-down government legislation. An attempt to eliminate compulsory trade union membership and reform waterfront practices in 1998 was foiled in the courts after a bitter fight between the transport company Patricks and the Maritime Workers Union of Australia.
The other issue was the rise of One Nation under Pauline Hanson. Considered a far right party that attracted a constituency from the mad, the bad and the sad, Howard was criticised for failing to speak out against the party. Both parties were afraid of loosing voter support to One Nation, especially after it won several seats in the 1998 Queensland election. Its ascendency also highlighted to Howard the complexities of winning over the insecurities of the 'battler' vote while professing a neo-liberal agenda. However the fickle nature of One Nation's leadership - and some surreptitious intervention by some senior Liberal Party figures - eventually led to its own downfall.
Labor under Kim Beazley clawed back some support in the 1998 election (indeed the ALP received 51% of the two-party perferred vote), but failed to win government. Howard knew that the key to winning was to concentrate on marginal electorates. Pauline Hanson lost her own seat, thanks to its electoral boundaries being remapped.
Prime Minister (1998 to 2001)
Howard introduced the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2000, after making tax reform a core part of in his 1998 policy platform. It was initially unpopular (no amount of money thrown at a Joe Cocker soundtracked advertisement seemed to convince the public the GST would coincide with the elimination of most sales taxes). Through a deal with the Democrats and Brian Herradine Howard managed to get the tax passed through the Senate in exchange for government support of policies that could only benefit Tasmanians, and modifications to the tax to exempt food from the GST. Once the GST was introduced at the beginning of the 2000-2001 calendar year the public ended up accepting the tax - only the Liberal's core base of small business owners were annoyed, due to the chore of filling out quarterly BAS statements.
As if to put the issue to bed, Howard fulfilled a promise to hold a referendum in 1999 on the question of Australia becoming a republic. The issue failed - every state and territory except the Australian Capital Territory voted against pursuing the matter any further - partially because there was indecision on a fairly fundamental point: should a future President be appointed by Parliament or by a popular vote?
Whether Howard wanted it or not, Australia was also gaining a more public face in the region and in the world. It's neightbour Indonesia was badly prepared for the political aftershocks of the 1997 economic meltdown, and needed a billion dollar bailout from the Australian taxpayer. Fiji, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands were facing ethnic conflict. In 1999 Howard abandoned long standing bipartisan policy on accepting Indonesia's unqualified possession of East Timor, by encouraging a dispiritedIndonesian government to accept a United Nations sponsored plebicite for independence. Eventually Australia was forced to send troops to secure the fledgling country, and support it to and beyond independence. Australians supported the action, the Indonesians despised it.
In 2001, after the hoo-hah of the Olympics, the Constitutional Convention and the Millenium, the Howard government began to trail in the polls. A series of scandals involved certain members of the Cabinet or their portfolios. Labor had almost secured every state government, and they had won a safe federal seat in Queensland in a by-election. Howard was forced to backtrack on some unpopular policies, such as indexing petrol excise.
Things changed dramatically from August 2001. Australia was continually receiving a tide of Middle Eastern asylum seekers coming to Australia from Indonesia by boat. Howard chose to settle the issue by ordering Australian special forces to board and detain the SV Tampa. The Norwegian flagged freighter had picked up mostly Afghani asylum seekers near Christmas Island, who then put duress on the Captain to sail into Australian waters. The asylum seekers were sent to Nauru for off-shore processing, so as to prevent Australia being obliged to hear and process requests for asylum. The action earned censure from the Norwegian government and shocked significant portions of the Australian electorate (including within the Liberal Party). However this action, despite being questionably legal and amoral, solidified Howard's leadership credentials amongst the Australian electorate.
The SV Tampa incident helped Howard win a third term of office in the 2001 Australian Federal Election, especially as the campaign was played out in the weeks following the September 11 attacks. Labor went backwards in the polls, and Beazley was replaced by the colourless aparachik Simon Crean.
Prime Minister (2001 - 2004)
John Howard was indeed in Washington DC at the time of the attacks, and from this point he steered Australian foreign policy more closely to the United States than any other Western leader. Howard contributed troops to Afghanistan and - against public opinion - to Iraq. Australia's military was also busy on several humanitarian and peace-keeping missions around its unstable periphery.
Most dramatically for Australia in the War on Terror were the Bali Bombings on October 12, 2002. Eighty nine Australians were killed by Islamists in response to Australia's intervention in East Timor and Afghanistan. At home Australia beefed up its counter-intelligence resources and anti-sedition laws.
Still Howard had scandals to deal with. His victory in the 2001 election was tainted by claims that the Defence Minister had misled the Australian public that asylum seekers had thrown their children into the Indian Ocean in order to cajole the Australian Navy. The government was also seen as implicated in the scandal of supplying the world a false casus belli to invade Iraq (although Iraq has not been such a big issue in Australia compared with the United States and Britain, since there are comparatively fewer Australians serving there). Howard was seen to be insensitive by failing to act promptly when allegations surfaced about the Governor General of Australia, Dr Peter Hollingsworth. Appararently Hollingsworth had not investigating claims of paedophilia amongst priests under his responsibility when he was Archbishop of Brisbane.
Howard turned 64 in 2003 and there was signs that he may have been planning his own exit. The treasurer, Peter Costello, was hoping to fill his shoes, and others were wondering if it was desirable for a Prime Minister to hold office for such a long time. Except that, of course, the public was generally quite content with Howard.
By this time Australians were beginning to notice increased prosperity. Unemployment was down, business investment was rising, and Australia's equity markets seemed to be immune the dot com crash and the confluence of the Asian economic crisis. The resilience and strength of the Australian economy is not entirely due to the economic reforms that Howard introduced; policies that Keating and Hawke introduced against public opinion have also been important, along with a commodities boom fuelled by growth in China and India. Australians were more likely to be shareholders than trade unionists, or to be employed on individual work contracts than through arbitrated agreements, and a new breed of voter known as the aspirational class emerged in previously safe Labor seats. With low government borrowing flatlining interest rates and the introduction of grants to first time home owners, Australians took out home loans in large numbers. Property prices boomed from 2000 to 2003, as did mortgage payments.
Which is precisely why Labor failed so dismally in the 2004 elections. In 2003 the party got rid of Crean and chose the more lively and youthful Mark Latham to be their savour. Latham's time as Leader of the Opposition was punctuated by his wild behaviour and caustic remarks against his political enemies (including within his own party), and his legacy of mismanagement while he was Mayor of the Sydney suburb of Liverpool. He made himself look like precisely the kind of person you wouldn't want running the Australian economy. All Howard had to do was say very little except remind voters of the vitality of the Australian economy - he could even say the 2004 election would be run on the issue of trust without any trace of irony. And boy how he utterly defeated Labor.
Prime Minister (2004 - ?)
The Coalition victory of the 2004 election was so significant that they won control of the Senate (well, ignoring the balance of power held by the single representative of the Christian Family First Party).
Latham didn't last long after that, and Beazley returned to lead the Australian Labor Party.
Control of the Senate has given Howard more reason to remain as Prime Minister and pursue even more reforms. In 2006 the Workchoices legislation was introduced, dramatically deregulating industrial relations, favouring employers. Some benefits were stripped from Medicare. Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) began to be enforced on Australian university campuses. Changes have been made to fully privatise Telstra and remove restrictions on media ownership.
To date in Howard's fourth term of Prime Minister there have been three major scandals. Two are similar stories: Cornelia Rau (a German with permanent residency) and Vivian Alvarez (an Australian citizen), both with psychiatric disorders, were on separate incidents mistaken as illegal immigrants by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. Rau ended up languishing in anonimity in detention centre, while Alvarez was unlawfully deported to the Philippines. The third scandal involved the Department of Foreign Affairs allegedly ignoring reports that the Australian Wheat Board had bribed the Iraqi government when it was party to the Oil for Food Program.