John Howard’s Legacy

In the first edition of Quadrant under the stewardship of new editor Keith Windschuttle, John Stone puts forward the case that John Howard is Australia’s greatest Prime Minister. His arguments are as follows, beginning with Howard’s failings. 

A Bad Prime Minister

i) ‘If you believe that a PM requires an outstanding intellect, then John Howard is not your man.’ Stone begins by bizarrely citing his poor academic grades at school.

ii) Howard was not a principled decision maker. (yes, he’s a politician). Stone cites his abandonment of the privatisation of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority but does concede that ‘his capacity to depart from his principles was one factor that enabled the Coalition to hold office for so long’.

iii) He was a poor judge of character. Namely Senator Fred Chaney.

iv) His decision to ban handguns following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996.

v) His decision to introduce GST in 1997 (though Stone appears to be arguing that this was a poor policy judgement rather than a poor outcome)

vi) His ‘debauching’ of the Commonwealth Public Service.

vii) His federalist attitude to the Constitution and his ‘intrusions by an empire-building Canberra’. In particular Work Choices legislation and its ‘gross exploitation‘ of the corporations power.

viii) His ineffectiveness in countering the ‘flagrant bias of the ABC and the SBS’. (though isn’t KW now on the ABC’s Board?)

The Greatest Prime Minister

Stone’s arguments rest heavily on Howard’s achievement in steering attitudes back to those represented by the ‘decent lower and middle classes of Australia’ as opposed to Keating’s beloved wealthy latte sippers . In particular,

i) Multiculturalism – whilst Stone is correct to highlight the absurdities of this doctrine, his arguments have more than a whiff of racism to them. For instance he argues that ‘not all potential immigrants are equal‘ and praises Howard’s decision to halt immigration from Africa. Stone also adores the Citizenship Test and its requirement of knowledge of Australian values and history. For him, the Test doesn’t go far enough. He ominously describes the issue of Muslim immigration as a ‘piece of unfinished business’ without elaborating.

ii) Aboriginal issues – less to argue with here. Stone is scathing of the Coombs-inspired push for separatism and socialism and notes that Howard has produced deep splits within the Labor Party, citing Warren Mundine as converts to the Howard/Pearson thinking. He is unapologetic over Howard’s refusal to apologise, claiming that the issue is all about ‘money and shaming the nation.’ It isn’t.

iii) Trade Union power – though he correctly notes the continued decline of Trade Union influence during the Howard years as more due to external influences, he does point to Howard’s battle with the Maritime Union as a key issue.

iv) Defeat of the Republican dream. Long live King Harry!

v) Winning the debate about teaching ‘real history’ in our schools.

vi) Emphasising the supremacy of the family. Stone fondly digs up a rather nasty Keating quote that ‘two blokes and a cocker spaniel don’t make a family.’

vii) Choice – Stone apparently views Howard as successfully giving people choice to select schools, hospitals and to ‘sell their labour under conditions of their choosing‘ without citing any evidence of this.

viii) ‘Mutual obligation’ – that Howard reinforced the notion that all are entitled to a helping hand when required but that it is reasonable to ask the recipients to make an effort too.

ix) The Economy – though Stone is critical of Howard and Costello’s habit of ‘squirelling away’ surpluses rather than delivering tax cuts, he is clear that Australia’s booming economy is largely down to these two and not China.

Here, i agree wholeheartedly with Stone. There is a strange knee-jerk reaction amongst classical liberals to paint the Howard/Costello team as one of the biggest tax and spend governemnts on record and to fondly recall the tax cutting and deregulating days of Hawke and Keating. This was highlighted last year in a series of debates in the CIS between Andrew Norton, Peter Saunders and Peter Costello.

Whilst the Howard government has increased taxes, it is important to keep sight of the bigger picture. Firstly, Howard supported all the proposals of the ALP to deregulate and cut tax. Second, one has to be cogniscant of the times we live in. The 1980s were harsh times for Australia. There was a sense that tough medicine had to be taken. Fast forward 15 years and with all the benefits of this tough medicine now evident, the electorate wanted to show their caring, compassionate side. Norton/Saunders berated Costello for failing to reduce Australia’s spending as a portion of GDP despite eleven boom years. However, they forget that during this timescale, all other Western governments, in particular that of Britain and the US, were racking up huge deficits as that is what the electorate wanted. Had Howard let spending drop and axed taxes, he would have been kicked out of office. It is a fact of life us classical liberals must do better to remember.

x) Strengthening of the alliance with the US by joining the coalition of the willing in Afghanistan and Iraq. Stone is uncritical here. This is a major flaw in Stone’s article and KW’s editoral.

Stone concludes that the greatest compliment paid to Howard was Rudd’s me-tooism during election campaigning last year.  A fair point. Having lived through the post-Thatcher years in Britain, i suspect that Howard will be the Lord Voldermort of his party  – he who must not be named. The Liberals are already dropping his policies faster than i can keep up with, despite plummetting poll ratings.

My prediction – the Liberals will banish Howard and his legacy for at least ten years. Having been thrashed at the 2010 elections, they will dump Nelson and undergo a dramatic remake under Malcolm Turnbull, reinventing themselves as a caring, compassionate, green social democrats.  Turnbull will lose in 2013 but the party will do better. By 2016, a Howard quote might just be used once again. 

51 thoughts on “John Howard’s Legacy

  1. I think Curtin and Menzies will be known as the best PMs, because Curtin carried us through ww2 on his back (we did nothing, if you listen to the ALP), and Menzies was credited with the boom of the 50s and 60s. Hawke will be credited with pushing through some Liberal reforms. Howard could eventually be assigned a place amongst the greats, but not until after he is dead (The only good tall poppy is a dead one!).

  2. No way in hell is Howard the best. Menzies and Curtin both have a justifiable claim, but my choice is Hawke. Perhaps this would be a good ALS quiz question?

  3. Agree with John.

    what the hell exactly was so great about the ‘good’ side of Howard?

    1) Aboriginal issues – none issue or actually made things worse by reintroducing paternalism. Only good part of his reforms there were giving freehold rights.

    2) Republic – non issue

    3) teaching of histoy – non issue and actually worse, content of education should be decided by competing curricula

    4) mutual obligation – an expensive form of welfare which involves creation of non-jobs that someone ultimately has to pay for. backward step.cheaper to throw the bludgers some money and leave them to sink or swim.

    5) family values – non issue or actually a backward step.

    I’ll give him expansion of choice in education. No idea what he did that was so great in health. Trade union power – dead for 10 years or more. Don’t know anyone who’s in a trade union. Province of bank tellers and public servants.

  4. One of the great strengths of Howard was that he dis-Lodged Keating. Plus, I don’t think Beazley would have been a good PM, so keeping him out was another benefit.

  5. Hawke was transformational. Hawke must be a lead contender.

    Was Hawke the first aussie PM with a PHD in economics?

  6. My prediction – the Liberals will .. reinvent themselves as a caring, compassionate, green social democrats.

    Didn’t the Conservatives do that in the UK? Not even the Liberals are dumb enough to follow that approach. Besides, the religious right has too much influence to allow it.

    I predict the Liberals will become more traditional right wing – economically statist and socially conservative. A lot of Australians prefer to have their bums wiped for them and are quite conservative on certain issues. That approach will have some electoral appeal and will probably be enough once Labor starts to screw up. Howard era statistics (inflation, unemployment, for example) will be selectively quoted as soon as they can be used to make them look good.

  7. Terje I don’t think Hawke has a PhD in anything unless you’re referring to some honorary one.

    He has bachelors in economics and laws and then he did a PPE at Oxford

  8. Jason – I sense that I have made this mistake previously. I’ll try and take better note.

  9. Howard’s legacy:

    Demonise refugees to get re elected (children overboard)
    Slavishly follow a militant superpower.
    I lied and lied and lied, why did they throw me out?

    Howard did many good things but history will remember him as the most dishonest prime minister of this country

  10. You lot are spoilt. Go and live in old Europe for a while to gain some perspective.

    Government spending to GDP is 22% versus 45% in Europe. The budget is throwing off so much cash that the only argument is how to spend it whilst most European govts are running deficits in the 1-2% range. Australia recently came 4th in the World Freedom Index versus 10th when Howard came to power.

  11. Didn’t the Conservatives do that in the UK

    Only recently. Before they reinvented themselves they were languishing with Nelsonesque poll ratings. Cameron has ‘rebranded’ and now they are polling 10 points above Labour.

  12. Pommy,

    Perhaps we should all be called anti-Australian for criticising the big state achievements of the previous government in the midst of so much wealth and freedom?

    Howard was a small man who rode the waves of public sentiment astutely. Of his two major reforms, the base brodening GST and the pro-employment WorkChoices, the first almost cost the conservatives office and the second did. It depresses me no end that liberal political parties are so inept at educating the electorate about the benefit of reform. This is an area that the Liberals will need to work on, or simply hope that the ALP get another Hawke/Keating combination to push through reform. Rudd/Swan is not that combination.

  13. Brendan

    I don’t blame the Australian Liberals for being poor salesman of liberal policies. It seems to be a worldwide affliction of all liberal parties that they can’t seem to sell classical liberalism.

  14. Pommy, perhaps you should compare HK rather than use negative comparisons with Europe — when I was there they increased personal tax from 15% to 16%, for the reason which they gave as needing the money (how very honest — I didn’t even manage to complain that when that happened, as they did really need it and were so blatantly honest about it). They then reduced it again, because they had enough money (thanks!). This year, they have such a big surplus they are giving it back! so lots more people than the lots who don’t already pay tax don’t pay tax. Its like wonderland compared to most places.

  15. Conrad

    Donald Tsang compared democracy to the Cultural Revolution. I’ll stick with Howard thanks.

    I expect very little from politicians. If they don’t entirely fuck the country up, then i consider it a result. The other way of looking at it is this; if not Howard, then which other leader would you have rather had over the past ten years? Bush? Clinton? Chirac? Blair? Schroder? Chavez? Putin?

  16. Pommy if you’re setting such a low standard, then why are you declaring John Howard Australia’s greatest PM when there are at least 2 other contenders for this title (both from the Labor side)?

  17. If it wasn’t for overspending and not going back to improve on the first knee-jerk response to firearms…..

    (note. I’m not being too hard on him for the knee-jerk response. Because these were major tragedies. Only for not going back and re-establishing a greater liberty and a more intelligent and nuanced policy once the air had cleared)

    ….. Other than these two things he’d have to be one of the greatest Prime Ministers if not the greatest. I thought that the Hawke Prime Ministership was bloody marvellous.

    But unfortunately I don’t know enough about the history. Most people would turn a blind eye to the firearms policy and the overspending.

    And if you were a reasonable man with that one eye blind surely you would have to rate him as exemplary.

  18. Jason

    I’m not declaring JH the greatest PM!! merely saying he wasn’t as bad as most here seem to think.

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  20. Ron Paul would not like the fact that he was Prime Minister, as PMs don’t have the scope of Presidents.
    Here’s another interesting contest- our worst PM? Whilst Keating certainly polarised everyone, I think Billy Hughes, who was pro-conscription, would get my vote.

  21. Huh? I think NZ PM Robert Muldoon said he’d rather be the PM of NZ than President of the USA since Prime Ministers had powers the President only dreamed he had, such as appointing judges and initiating legislation.

  22. But, in our system, PMs don’t have fixed terms. With no party behind him, he would be very insecure, no matter what powers also came with the job.

  23. I agree with Pom….Although their time in opposition could be much shorter.

    Howard’s luck is that he seemed to have a decent team around him. Although i kinda like Rudd, it seems he’ll be doing quite a bit of the heavy lifting as he isn’t exactly crowded with talent… and they will have to navigate some pretty rough water in terms of the economy.

  24. Howard built a decent team. He seems to have been good at giving people room to grow and perform.

    One of the things I like about the westminster system is the fact that the PM can be sacked at any time. Congress in the US can sack the president (as they would have with Nixon if he didn’t resign) but generally only for corruption. The USA has term limits to compensate but on balance I think this wastes good presidents. The checks and balances in the westminster system are quite good in my view. I think our senate needs a redesign however. Either senators should be appointed by the states or else senators should be elected on a single national ticket.

  25. The Westminster system is terrible. The PM can dismiss Parliament whenever he likes, and can dismiss the whole Senate for the flimsiest of reasons.

    What was the 1984 election all about?

  26. 1984 was a PM wanting more power from the people. The people gave their answer. Whats the problem?

  27. Pommy,

    if you had China breathing down your neck, you’d probably be willing to say odd things now and then too (Australia went to war with Iraq due to the US breathing down our neck, and thats far worse). In the end its actions that count, and whilst I notice Donald Tsang is still trying to do silly things every now and then, they arn’t nearly as silly as those you see in Australia (although that’s partly cultural, as people in HK seem to hate having the government waste money much more than Aus, where they don’t seem to care at all).

  28. Sorry, that was ambiguous, it should far worse as in saying something stupid versus actually acting upon something stupid.

  29. Conrad

    That HK is No 1 on the Freedom Index has nothing whatsoever to do with Donald Tsang. It is entirely due to the British setting it up as a free trading, free-wheeling colony.

  30. Pommy,

    I agree about Donald Tsang, but disagree about why it is like it is. It’s mainly due to the people of HK, who hate tax, crime, and the government spending money on useless crap. They are also smart, hard-working and productive. A good thing to think about here is what would happen if you had exactly the same set up in Australia — would we get the same outcome — I doubt it(of course that can’t be tested).

    On this note, I think you are far to generous toward governments as to why some countries are successful. My opinion is that there are many decent sets of laws that allow people to prosper, but the biggest effect as to why some places prosper and others don’t is because of the people themselves, regardless of the laws, as long as the government doesn’t screw things up (including destroying people’s minds).

    A good example here is China. Lots of obviously non-Chinese people seem to think that the reason China is booming is because of the government. However, it isn’t because of the government at all — all they did was get rid of draconian laws stopping people succeed (that was the reason they were previously unsuccessful). The reason CHina is booming and successful is for the same reason as most of the rest of Chinese history — its due to the creativity and ingenuity of the people.

  31. The PM can only dismiss Parliament if he puts his own job on the line! The voters can then tell him where to go. That’s better than fixed terms!

  32. iv) His decision to ban handguns following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996.

    What? This misinformation was published?

  33. But the PM can be ousted in any Cabinet meeting! He does not have a secure term. And the powers of the PM are not explicitly stated in the Constitution, so we can abridge them at any time.

  34. Nicholas, if the powers are not specified, and the GG must act on the advice of a PM, how can a PM be anything but voluntarily retired besides the expiry of Parliamentary terms?

    Would rely on Condi and Ashcroft to rein in Bush II?

  35. Hawke was sacked in the end. The potential for such a thing ensures that the PM pursues a concensus style and has to bring other people with him. I think better decisions get made when there is such accountability.

    If you amended the system to have fixed terms or to appoint commonwealth officers by some other means it would in my view still be the westminster system. The point is that in the US the electoral colledge can’t change it’s mind once the president is appointed, whilst in the westminster system the PM can be rolled any day of the week.

    The westminster system also has a better track record than the US style presidential system in the preservation of democracy. The fact the Iraq has adopted the essentials of the westminster system is in my view a good thing.

    One good thing about the US system is that ministers can be selected from a bigger pool of talent.

  36. Hawke was sacked, after about the same time term limits would have kicked in. Also remember no one really liked Paul Keating, the next two elections saw him lose the primary vote and ultimately office. If he was up for election after Hwake had to step down, he probably wouldn’t have won. (He probably wouldn’t have been hated like he is now either).

    The US States have a better system than Federally; recall elections would be messy in a Parliamentary system, they worked in California re Governor Grey Davis.

    What is so good about consensus based executive decision making? Leave consensus up to Parliament.

  37. Concensus is good if it means more angles are considered. Of course if you have a president with god like intellect maybe you don’t need it.

  38. Presidents must appoint cabinet Secretaries…whereas PMs and Premiers often give themselves pet portfolios.

    US States also (generally) directly elect AGs, Auditors, Lt Governors and some other executive positions.

  39. Care to buy a second hand tank?
    What about a Hornet?
    Just don’t mention the war,Hanson,Haneef or off-shore concentration camps and global warming
    The NT intervention was created on the back of an envelope and so was the’save our rivers’ plan. So much for policy analysis and implementation.
    And can anyone explain what ‘aspirational nationalism’ meant?
    Howard is a contender for the worst PM since Hughes. Certainly the most divisive and incompetent.

  40. After 12 years of Howard and lies over WMD’s, AWB scandals and no GST never ever, children overboard, Kelly Letterbox drops, holding Australians without charge, the Dr Haneef saga and lies about interest rates all being accepted by Australia. When infact Costello called it during the libs time in power the tusnami of economic danger it’s no wonder Australia is getting dumb after 12 years of being fed a diet of lies.
    It’s no wonder. Hey Anyone hear the Bonsai’s claim about Rudd being naive about leaving Iraq whern infact it was naive going in based on WMD’s that didnt exist and without an exit plan or any plan at all.

  41. i think that Johan Howard was one of the most influential Prime Ministers in Australia’s history. The things he did for the country are outstanding. Let’s hop Elmer Fudd can do a descent job!

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