Veteran political commentator Mungo McCallum once wrote that the chronicler of the Howard years would need “a strong stomach”. Mungo was right, but not necessarily for the reasons he intended. John Howard polarises opinion.
Some see political genius in operation - ruthless pragmatism and a centrally controlled and disciplined machine permanently in campaign mode. Others see only sheer luck - a prime minister and government that would have been short-lived and little remembered were it not for the September 11 attacks and the MV Tampa episodes as the 2001 election drew near.
The extensive criticism of Howard is unsurprising given some of the divisive debates over which he has presided, from waterfront reform to asylum seekers to the war in Iraq. Yet, Howard was a polarising figure long before he became prime minister, and the tumult that surrounds him makes a stark contrast to the mild-mannered image that he cultivates.
Howard has had his share of good and bad luck, but has also shown high levels of discipline and political learning. He learned the right lessons from his first, unsuccessful, period of leadership and John Hewson’s 1993 “unloseable election”. He also learned from the many early mistakes of his government, including the loss of a series of ministerial colleagues, and policy blunders such as increased nursing home fees.
More recent policy development has ensured the government balances consistent references to the national interest with carefully selected appeals to sectional interests. This is, however, the sort of political balancing act that can quickly become unstuck, leaving Howard or his successor with an exhausted supply of political capital were, for example, new industrial relations laws to test the patience of the electorate.
Howard’s cheer squad of conservative newspaper columnists are undeterred by the many compromises he has had to make as prime minister. Right-wingers who admit to their disappointment in Howard’s pragmatism are more likely to be found in obscure think tanks or weblogs than on the front lines of political debate.
On the other hand, Howard’s tenure has seen record numbers of prominent citizens declare their shame at being Australian. “I have never before been ashamed of my country … now I am”, Fraser Government minister Peter Baume told The Australian in early 2006.
Strangely, many of these newly-ashamed people lived through the White Australia Policy, the stolen generations, and the Fraser Government’s recognition of Indonesia’s genocidal occupation of East Timor. It took John Howard’s prime ministership to move them to express their shame of their country. Clearly, for small “l” liberals, John Howard’s triumph offended their sense of progress.
The most important role for a conservative leader is to make judgments about which shibboleths to discard, which to embrace, and which to politely ignore. Just as the next conservative leader will pick and choose what to keep and what to throw away from the burst of social reform that will inevitably follow Howard’s exit.
If conservatives are masters of anything, it is the strategic retreat. Howard’s reluctance to engage issues such as abortion and multiculturalism in the way some of his right wing supporters would have liked is typical conservative strategy. This is wedge politics in reverse, burying issues that might divide your own party.
It’s here that our interest in the prime minister lies: pinning down the real John Howard somewhere between the ideologue and the pragmatist, between the conviction politician and the opportunist. After all, it took five election losses for the Liberal Party to concede that Medicare was popular with the Australian public.
Howard’s politics are much more complicated than the oft-cited liberalism in the economic sphere and conservatism in the social sphere. The two spheres aren’t so easily separated - hence the Liberal Party factional system built around personalities rather than ideas.
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