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Review of Norman Abjorensen, John Howard and the Conservative Tradition

By Scott Prasser - posted Friday, 7 January 2011


This new book on John Howard and the "conservatives" deserves a special welcome for three reasons.

First, it is a book about the non-Labor side of politics. Books about non-Labor politics, leaders and parties despite some occasional bursts, remain few and far between in Australia. We had to wait until the 1990s for Allan Martin’s two excellent volumes on Sir Robert Menzies who won 8 elections and served as prime minister for nearly 18 years.

Second, it is a book about John Howard. Howard at the federal level was, after Menzies, the non-Labor’s side most successful politician. More than that, Howard, was also Australia’s second longest serving prime-minister. This was no mean feat. Howard deserves our attention.

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Third, the non-Labor side of politics, what Abjorensen calls the "conservatives"  have at the federal level been far more successful in winning elections than their Labor opponents, notwithstanding the results of the recent 2010 election. This side of politics also deserves an update of its recent history that this book seeks to address.

Aborjensen’s book seeks to place the modern Howard and Liberal Party’s periods in office within a broad historical context.  Chapter 1 outlines the "conservative tradition" in Australian politics and provides an overview of how Australian "conservative" parties developed. The author seeks to connect Australian conservative parties’ relationships and impacts on democracy.

This continues in Chapters 2 and 3 where the focus moves to Howard who is compared to earlier conservative leaders and the nature of conservative leadership. Then the rise of Howard is assessed, his rivalry with Andrew Peacock for leadership detailed and Howard’s eventual dominance of the Liberal Party before and since the 1996 election outlined.

The last chapter (Chapter 5) considers whether Howard was a "conservative" or an "iconoclast." It concludes that many of Howard’s actions in government did not fit easily with previous non-Labor governments and hence he was an "iconoclastic conservative."  The debates between "conservatives" and small "l" liberals are considered in relation to the Howard Government.

Overall, the book covers much of what has been discussed in the media previously, but has now conveniently summarised the history and some of the issues in this one volume.

The main problems with this book are the judgments it makes about both conservatives in general and Howard in particular. They are rarely supported by any evidence, appreciation of context or comparison with other political parties or leaders. In condemning so many of the Howard Government’s policies in relation to the economy and industrial relations, it would have been helpful to assess just where these departed from the previous Hawke-Keating Labor governments.  Continuity, not departure, was the order of the day with much of the Howard Government’s agenda.

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The book asserts that conservatism “…has never been entirely comfortable with democracy as a concept” (p24), but the case rests almost solely on its industrial relations agenda of "reform."  The author’s view that the conservative parties’ only concerns are to keep Labor out of office without addressing wider cultural and social issues (p30) needs further elaboration and development. Can a political party be so narrow and negative and win office so often if this is the case?  Indeed, the author asserts that “…all Australian conservative leaders in the modern age have inflicted damage on the social fabric and compromised social cohesion for political advantage" (p11).

These extreme all encompassing views are neither tested nor related to the facts. Just where has Australia’s social fabric been shredded? For a country with one of the largest migrant intakes since the Second World War, achieved with a minimum of racial tension, this does not make sense. For a country that has managed to make suitable adjustments to its policy settings, often in a bipartisan way, these views do not reflect our great successes. For a country that has improved the economic well-being of its citizens for so long and better than many others, these views need to be matched by more sober analysis of modern political party realities and processes.

In the book each modern conservative leader is demolished. Menzies, we are told “…exploited the Cold War hysteria.” This is not explained, nor the Cold War context appreciated. Malcolm Fraser was “…impatient for power” and who acted out “…cynical manipulation of the Senate.” Is ambition confined to only one side of politics? And John Howard “…is merely the latest in a long line of ruthless conservative leaders.” You mean to say Labor leaders are not ruthless? Hawke taking over from Hayden, Keating removing Hawke and the pole-axing of Rudd by Gillard?

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This review was first published in Labour History, Vol 99. November 2010, pp 260-262.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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