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Beyond the wasted decade

By David Ritter - posted Thursday, 29 May 2008

On November 24, 2007, Australia brought the Prime Ministership of John Howard to an abrupt end. Exactly why the Coalition lost the Federal Election despite a period of sustained economic wellbeing will be a subject of enduring debate. However, deliberating the reasons for the result and assessing the quality of the government that has gone are quite different matters.

There should be no doubt: the Howard government was vicious, complacent, smug, and in many respects, simply incompetent. On their lack of merits, the Coalition richly deserved the loss they were handed. They enjoyed the good fortune of being able to slackly ride a boom enabled by the reforms of Hawke and Keating and the world historical phenomenon of Chinese industrial expansion, but after 11 years, profound economic luck was not enough to hide the manifest, manifold, dismal failings of the Howard government.

As John Langmore’s recent To Firmer Ground: Restoring Hope in Australia makes clear, in so many respects the Howard government simply failed the nation it was elected to govern.


The litany of debacles of the wasted decade of the Howard administration makes for grim reading: ruinously bad foreign policy, contempt for international systems, pitiful lack of investment in infrastructure, chronic under-funding of education, undermining of the conventions of Westminster government, the collapse of accountability in key defence procurements, denial then failure on climate change and the anti-worker viciousness of WorkChoices: and that is without even delving in to what are seen as the softer issues of refugees, multiculturalism and Indigenous affairs.

It was an era of the emaciation of collective good as a matter of Commonwealth governmental policy.

Waking in fright, we can now shudder at the passage of what Robert Manne dubbed “the barren years” (The Barren Years: John Howard and Australian Political Culture); a crucial decade that went uncultivated, squandered by a selfish and hubristic Prime Minister and a bullying braggart of a Treasurer.

In spitting sweetness, they went out together, Howard having ruined the Prime Ministerial aspirations of Costello. The former treasurer will now forever stand remembered for a legacy that journalist Virginia Trioli described as not having “the bottle to take on John Howard.”

One suspects that “doing a Costello” is the eponymous phrase now burrowing down into the Australian vernacular, applicable to any person who backs away from a challenge, particularly to achieve what they most desire. After the downfall, Alexander Downer, returning to the familiar fumbling of words and intonations that caused him to be the shortest lived leader in the Federal history of the Liberal Party, unintentionally nailed it when he told Kerry O’Brien on the 7:30 Report, that “Peter Costello is no Paul Keating.” Indeed he isn’t. One waits with meagre anticipation for Costello! The Musical, to be staged as an amateur puppet show.

Despite having done the inaugural “Costello” when he had his chance to make a run for the leadership and then lacking the inclination to stick around in adversity as leader of the opposition, the former treasurer was still full of the joys of himself when interviewed on Lateline shortly after the election:


[W]hen you have a change of government, by this stage shouldn't you have had the announcement shock horror, Budget secretly in deficit, books cooked? You know what's amazed me? Just the quietness of this week. There's been no revelations about the Budget. Here you have a group of people who have inherited a beautifully balanced Budget, no debt … Let me tell you when I was elected, the Monday afterwards, what had supposedly been a Budget surplus was $10 billion in deficit and the thing that amazes me about Labor is you know, all the equanimity around the place. No hidden skeletons, no hidden shocks.

Indeed, it must be conceded that by many indicators, Howard and Costello did preside over an economy that was doing well. Yet enjoying and causing prosperity should not be confused. As securities analyst Stephen Koukoulas has written:

While there is no doubt that Costello was Treasurer when some very good economic times were recorded, his legacy could be compared to a doctor who tells a patient they don't have cancer rather than the surgeon who performed the miraculous operations to cure another cancer patient.

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First published in The New Critic in Issue 7, May 2008.

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About the Author

David Ritter is a lawyer and an historian based at UWA. David is The New Critic's London based Editor-at-Large.

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