Australian Prime Ministers can be divided into two categories. There are those who enter politics as just pliant politicians with no coherent set of principles. In recent times, Malcolm Turnbull was the outstanding case in point. So was Kevin Rudd. This type of prime minister never seems to be in control of events, but always their victim. As a result, they leave little of worth as a legacy. Most prime ministers fit into this undistinguished group.
Then there is a second category: truly exceptional individuals with the courage and the indomitable will to shape history. They enter politics with a firm set of beliefs, and thereafter stick pretty closely to them. This type is extremely rare, coming along about once every few decades. The great Labor leader Bob Hawke (1983-91) was one – as was our longest serving prime minister Robert Menzies (1939-41, 1949-66).
John Howard is another example. It was 25 years ago last March that he was first voted to power. A landslide victory, it was the first of four election triumphs (1996, ’98, ’01, ’04) that would see him become Australia’s second-longest serving prime minister. As a consequence, the nation enjoyed a long stable period of political leadership and the longest economic boom since the gold rushes of the 19th century. None of Howard’s successors has come close to showcasing his grasp of policy and politics.
To understand the magnitude of what the Howard government did it was perhaps necessary to have lived through Australia in the early-to-mid 1990s. It was a time of Paul Keating’s “recession we had to have,” double-digital unemployment, record high budget deficits and a $96 billion debt. Perilously high interest rates of 17 per cent were hampering small business growth and economic productivity. Fiscal discipline seemed like a lost cause while tax reform was deemed mission impossible. In the “un-losable election” of 1993, the electorate rejected John Hewson’s goods-and-services tax.
At the same time, the nation had to put up with the Maritime Union of Australia’s industrial intransigence and its ideological hostility towards sensible workplace agreements. We had 2 per cent of world trade, Howard later recalled, but 25 per cent of dock disputations. The rorts had been so pervasive that wharfies were getting paid 50 per cent more than battling shift-worker police and nurses.
All that changed in 1996. Ably supported by several outstanding ministers – most notably Peter Costello, Alexander Downer, Peter Reith, Philip Ruddock and John Anderson – Howard was doggedly dedicated to using power to change Australia for the better.
The Howard tenure was peppered by several pivotal events in Australian history. For one, barely 50 days into his prime ministership, the nation was rocked by the Port Arthur massacre that left 35 dead, galvanising Howard to take action on gun reform.
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks motivated Howard, who was in Washington at the time, to invoke the ANZUS Treaty for the first time in its history and commit Australian forces to support the United States in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In 2003, Howard hosted visits by both US President George W Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao: both world leaders addressed parliament on consecutive days, which marked a high point in Howard’s regional diplomacy.
The Howard era was also notable for several achievements. Here are three of them.
In power, the Government cut income and company taxes (even as it implemented the seemingly impossible GST, which shifted a greater share of the overall tax burden from earning to spending). The full privatisation of Telstra meant that telecommunications could properly serve its customers and shareholders rather than those of its political masters. It also loosened the trade union grip on business, which made it easier for small businesses to get rid of unproductive workers.
In 1998, in one of the most controversial episodes of the Howard era, Canberra took on the wharfies and delivered dramatically improved waterfront productivity and greater reliability in some of the nation’s biggest-volume container ports. Overdue reforms delivered improved labour productivity, faster ship turnaround times and greater reliability in some of the nation’s biggest-volume container ports. Crane rates quickly met the government benchmark of 25 lifts an hour, up from 17 in 1997. Far from becoming a chokepoint exploited by a labour monopoly to reward inefficiency, the ports became a competitive link of the transport chain so crucial for an exporting nation.
As a result of the Government’s economic management, Howard and the treasurer Costello balanced the federal budget before recording surpluses in ten budgets. A $100 billion net debt was turned into $50 billion of net assets. This catapulted Australia to the forefront of the world’s leading economies and allowed the nation to weather several external shocks, most notably the global financial crisis of 2008-09.
The 2001 Tampa asylum-seeker standoff was a turning point in Australia’s border protection. For the previous two years, the deluge of over 12,000 boat people had seriously diminished public confidence in the immigration system.
When the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, packed with boat people, entered our waters, Howard implemented firm, deterrence policies, such as offshore detention processing. The result: the number of unauthorised arrivals by sea fell from 5516 in 2001 to precisely one in 2002.
Certainly, the measures were severe. However, tough border protection not only clamped down on people smugglers and discouraged people from making perilous journeys on the high seas. It also, boosted public confidence in a large-scale, non-discriminatory migration program, including an orderly humanitarian refugee intake which is, on a per capita basis, now one of the world’s most generous. From 2002 to 2008, Australia’s legal annual immigration doubled, which helped sustain the nation’s booming economy.
Contrary to the critics, who predicted that Howard would ruin Australia’s relations with Asia, the Liberal PM had hardly put a foot wrong in dealing with Asia. Under his leadership, Australia contributed to all three IMF bailout plans to Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. (The only other nation to do so was Japan). Trade links between Canberra and other regional states expanded dramatically.
Australia also led the 1999 peacekeeping effort in East Timor. At the time, the decision on whether to intervene seemed like a no-win situation for Australia, since on the one hand relations with Jakarta hung in the balance, and on the other the normally pacifist Left was baying for war with Australia’s closest neighbour. But Howard’s team defused the crisis with a prudent use of force, resulting in remarkable few casualties, minimal damage to relations with Indonesia, and East Timor given the best chance for stability and development.
During his tenure, Howard was all too often demonised beyond rational understanding. To hear his critics tell it, he was “an unflushable turd” (Mungo MacCallum), a “scheming, mendacious little man” (Alan Ramsey) and “far and away the worst prime minister in living memory” (Phillip Adams), who “silenced dissent” (Clive Hamilton) and corrupted the public debate (David Marr).
However, Howard’s support never rested with the media sophisticates. Indeed, it had broadly been found among the great mass of ordinary, decent, hard-working people. Howard is the proud son of a petrol station owner, and he has never forgotten his roots.
The history books will draw attention to Howard’s mistakes. He was as given to paternalism and pork barrelling as any of his predecessors. In 2003, he gave high-profile support to the unpopular and unnecessary war in Iraq, which cost Australia’s allies the US and UK dearly in blood, treasure, credibility and prestige. By indulging in hubris in 2006, he failed to pass the torch of leadership to the loyal and much younger Costello, who was more than likely to defeat Labor at the 2007 election.
The result was the spectacular loss of Coalition power and Howard becoming only the second sitting prime minister to lose his own seat. For all his political strengths, Howard failed to defy Enoch Powell’s doctrine that “all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure.”
Still, historians will single Howard out as something extraordinary: a politician with the guts to use the office of prime minister to change the nature of the nation in which he lived. He was a conservative warrior who combined strong convictions with a streak of pragmatism. He dominated his era: even those who disliked him could not avoid his gravitational pull. And as Kevin Rudd showed in the 2007 election campaign, Howard’s Labor opponents were forced to define themselves in relation to their nemesis.
The lesson of the Howard era was that he was always prepared to risk failure rather than take the easy choice. If our current politicians can conjure the same courage and some of Howard’s impressive legacy, Australia will be far better for it. This makes him a member of a truly select group, the others being Deakin, Curtin, Menzies and Hawke.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and a presenter at the ABC’s Radio National.