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.