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John Howard - his journey and his legacy

By Leon Bertrand - posted Friday, 7 December 2007

The story of John Winston Howard, Prime Minister of Australia, is a remarkable one. This article is about his political career, including his eventual rise to glory and success that ensured that he would make his mark in Australian history. This is the story of one of the most clever, determined and resilient men of his time.

From Earlwood to Treasurer

From his lower-middle class beginnings in Earlwood, John Winston Howard eventually became the most successful politician of his time. His rise certainly wasn’t a smooth one: the 1980s and early 1990s were certainly years where his ambitions were thwarted many times. His story is one of political courage, patience and determination.

Howard was a member of the Fraser government of 1975-1983, and at a young age was elevated to the position of Treasurer. However, unfortunately for Howard, most members of his government did not believe in embarking on bold microeconomic reform. Howard turned to the “drys”, the pro de-regulatory forces within the party, for his own personal political support.


The long years in Opposition (1983-1996)

When the Fraser government was unceremoniously booted from office in 1983, after leading Australia into a recession and producing a massive budget deficit, Howard was overlooked as Opposition leader. Instead the position went to Andrew Peacock, the Foreign Affairs Minister in the Fraser government, who went on to narrowly lose the 1984 election. After that election, Howard continually called his caucus colleagues, criticising Peacock’s leadership and asking for their support. Eventually Howard challenged for the deputy leadership, a proxy war over the leadership itself, and won. This in turn caused Peacock to resign, and allowed Howard to become leader unopposed.

In his first stint as leader of the Opposition, Howard suffered many setbacks. The “Joh for PM” campaign diverted attention, and caused disunity between the Liberals and the Nationals. Paul Keating also managed to spot an error in Howard’s alternative budget which undermined Howard’s credentials. Labor was also assisted by its environmental policies, and won the 1987 election with an increased majority.

The following year, Howard lost his leadership in a highly-secretive leadership coup led by Peacock, after Howard’s politically damaging comments on John Law’s radio program suggesting a reduction in Asian immigration.

This resulted in the years of political wilderness that Howard had to ensure after losing the leadership. When asked if he would ever become leader again, Howard answered that it would be “like Lazarus with a triple bypass”. After Peacock lost the 1990 election, Howard was overlooked as a leadership contender. When John Hewson lost “the unloseable election” of 1993, Howard challenged for the leadership but was soundly defeated by Hewson.

During these years Howard also embarked on a journey of introspection, analysing all the things that had gone wrong during his time as leader, including his own mistakes. One of those was assuming the leadership in circumstances where he did not receive an endorsement by the majority of his colleagues. As leader, he also often failed to consult his supporters, and this contributed to the surprise of finding that most of his colleagues supported Peacock’s leadership bid when it was too late.

In the early 1990’s Howard was not getting any younger, and was increasingly being seen as too old, and moreover representing the past. When Hewson’s leadership faltered, Howard discovered that most of his colleagues were instead supporting Alexander Downer, who subsequently challenged Hewson in a leadership ballot and won. At that stage Howard was convinced that his leadership aspirations were over. He reluctantly supported the Alexander Downer-Peter Costello dream team in the ballot and accepted that he would never lead the Liberal Party again.


But fate was to produce one more twist in Howard’s years in Opposition.

An inexperienced Downer made many mistakes as leader, and his poll advantage over Keating quickly crumbled. When Downer made a joke about domestic violence when unleashing his policies (“the things that batter”), his leadership became terminal.

Howard sensed he had one last shot at the leadership and spoke to his colleagues in order to canvass their support. One such colleague was Costello, and it is from Howard’s now infamous discussions with Costello that the possibility that Costello would take over midway through Howard’s second term in government was discussed.

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About the Author

Leon Bertrand is a Brisbane blogger and lawyer.

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