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Judging Howard

By Chris Lewis - posted Monday, 7 September 2009


Watching the recent SBS three-part documentary Liberal Rule: The Politics That Changed Australia only confirms what I already knew. Many Australian political scientists, probably most, have very few good things to say about the Howard government.

As Peter Coleman observed in Spectator Australia (July 29, 2009), the SBS documentary presented Howard “as obsessively ambitious, devious, populist and vain to the point of arrogance” with just a few cabinet ministers and couple of staffers left to defend the government against many left leaning journalists and academics.

Is Australia’s second most successful federal government (in terms of longevity alone) so undeserving of fairer analysis by academia even in regards to controversial policy stances on a number of issues, notably Aborigines, immigration, multiculturalism, industrial relations, Iraq and global warming?

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Simple truth is that political commentators, especially academics, must incorporate all of the factors that help explain policy trends in Australia’s democracy, notably the interaction that takes place in a democracy between political parties, interest groups and public opinion.

But no, many Australian political scientists feel no such need. Heaven forbid, they may find evidence that actually complicates the moral righteousness of their personal analysis.

For instance, Rae Wear argued in the Australian Journal of Political Science (December 2008) that the Howard government (1996-2007) undermined Australian democracy by taking up aspects of One Nation’s policy platform, using wedge politics to secure the government’s position and minimise dissent from the Labor Opposition, neglecting minority rights, and diverting resources to appease rural and regional voters.

How did Wear make such an extremely negative conclusion? Not from observing opinion polls. Nor from primary political science research by McAllister and Clark who observed in Results from the Australian Election Study 1987-2004 that the belief that government was run for all of the people increased from 18 to 33 per cent between 1998 and 2004.

Rather, Wear’s argument was based on the judgments of fellow academics (including Judith Brett, Robert Manne, Andrew Markus, and John Warhurst) who collectively criticised the Howard government’s performance in regards to immigration, Aborigines, border protection, refugees, and the promotion of Australian values.

In reality, many Australians do not share the same moral certainty of what policy should be.

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Fact is that by 1996 Labor was indeed on the nose over a number of social issues. As indicated by February 1996 AGB McNair and Morgan Gallup polls, many voters were attracted to the coalition because of campaign promises made in relation to the environment, welfare fraud, immigration, and its declaration that it would maintain the popular universal health-care system (Medicare).

And Howard was no Labor-style populist trying to be all things to all people prior to being collected (like Rudd in 2007), although there were some false promises such as the Coalition’s pre-election announcement not to introduce a GST. In a couple of 1995 speeches Howard indicated that he would take on trade unions and adopt tougher measures to counter greater welfare dependency despite acknowledging that a decent social security system was necessary to protect the most vulnerable.

This does not mean that criticism of the Howard government policy mix was not warranted.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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