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Libertarian nation by stealth

By Chris Wallace - posted Friday, 15 June 2007

John Howard will go down in history as the stealth bomber of libertarian politics. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) was the libertarian trailblazer; US President Ronald Reagan (1980-88) was her trans-Atlantic twin. But in his ten years in office, John Howard has achieved a libertarian transformation of the public policy landscape in Australia no less dramatic in depth, no less ambitious in scope than either Thatcher or Reagan achieved in their own domains.

Even late in Howard's disastrous first experience of Opposition leadership, he held fast to his plans, as made clear in Gerard Henderson's interview with him in1989 just prior to his being toppled by Peacock:

Henderson: Industrial relations. Assuming a Liberal government were elected tomorrow, what would you do?
Howard: Implement our policy root and branch. If we do that we'll effect a revolution.
Henderson: Straight away?
Howard: Yes. Absolutely. Nobody should be in any doubt. Our attitude on industrial relations has not changed one iota.


The leadership loss, reflection on the negative political yield from his policy candour during that period and seeing the Coalition sunk by then leader John Hewson's radical "Fightback!" platform at the1993 election all taught Howard to keep his mouth shut publicly about libertarian reform. But Howard had not abandoned his plan to pursue it in office.

At the1996 election, reform and restructuring-battered voters thought they were buying a breather from radical change when they elected Howard as Prime Minister. But, under the cover of the "reasonable man" voice and the soothing denials of radical intent and persistent reassurance about the future of iconic institutions like Medicare and the Industrial Relations Commission at that election, Howard gave them the beginning of a decade's fundamentalist reform instead.

Over that decade, the rhetoric remained "relaxed and comfortable": the reality was libertarian revolution.

But, with the patience and cunning of a person who has previously possessed power and then felt the keen pain of its loss, Howard made maintenance of power his overriding goal. The pace of the (latent) program was never allowed to outstrip the ability of voters to remain in a "relaxed and comfortable" hill. The agenda at any given moment was never allowed to be so crowded with transformational policy change that voters might be startled.

Short, plain, bespectacled Howard, with his Akubra and the complete confidence of power, developed a "don't you worry about that" style, a suburban version of his old National Party bête noir, Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

The work of libertarian philosopher economists Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman nevertheless forms the intellectual foundation of the Howard Government. The primacy of free markets as the underpinning of social and political freedom lies at the heart of the libertarian program. A decisive shift in power and resources from the public to the private sector is the keynote of libertarian policy change.


The central difference between the Howard Government and those of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan is that Howard never announced the revolution - he just quietly, over time, piece by piece, did it. By this means, at least until the recent passing of the WorkChoices legislation, he preserved his Government from any massing of popular opposition to change.

The central difference between the Howard Government and the Hawke-Keating governments is that the Labor governments saw a crucial role for the public sector across the policy framework and actively used it - especially in relation to issues of economic inequality, about which libertarians are unconcerned. (Witness the widening wealth gap which occurred during the Thatcher and Reagan years in Britain and the United States, and in Australia during the life of the Howard Government.)

The other main difference is historical. The Hawke-Keating governments had to negotiate adverse international economic developments for most of their tenure while the Howard Government has enjoyed a massive terms of trade boom in the context of rapid global growth; the extra wealth a lubricant to ease policy change past any remnant voter resistance.

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This is an edited extract from Griffith REVIEW 16: Unintended Consequences (ABC Books).

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About the Author

Chris Wallace is a Canberra journalist and the author of The Private Don (Allen and Unwin, 2004), Greer, Untamed Shrew (Pan Macmillan, 1997) and Hewson: A Portrait (Pan Macmillan, 1993).

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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