28/02/2006 - 21:00

Evaluating the Howard factor

28/02/2006 - 21:00


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By dint of perseverance and survival at the upper echelons of the NSW and Federal Liberal parties John Howard has come to intrigue a growing cohort of journalists, especially those based in Sydney, his hometown, and Canberra, where he’s at work some weeks

By dint of perseverance and survival at the upper echelons of the NSW and Federal Liberal parties John Howard has come to intrigue a growing cohort of journalists, especially those based in Sydney, his hometown, and Canberra, where he’s at work some weeks.

Understandably therefore The Australian newspaper has directed its east coast-based journalistic reporting and feature writing team to compile an assessment of Mr Howard’s 10 prime ministerial years; The Howard Factor: A Decade that Changed the Nation.

Because so many have been so near Howard for so long they have what may be fairly described as essentially a centrist perspective of his successes and failures.

Not all have been so close.

My assessment of Mr Howard’s decade relies on a limited knowledge of Australia’s political history, reading the work of contributing authors Kate Legge, Greg Sheridan and Mike Steketee, listening to and watching the prime minister on radio and television, and discussing his stances and performance with several hundred, mainly Western Australian, voters.

Those discussions have convinced me that he has deliberately and shrewdly cultivated and projected several attributes that he sees as advantaging him over opponents, both within the Liberal and Labor parties.

Mr Howard portrays himself – and one must stress the word portrays – in all interviews as humble, someone who isn’t bossy, who’s not a smart Alec, and who isn’t overly assertive.

This portrayal makes him appealing to most Australians.

My guess is that, after each electronic interview, more than half the listeners or viewers judge him to be fair and reasonable, which must be seen as a formidable ongoing achievement.

But what else is this Sydney-sider?

He’s been dogged, determined, ambitious, generally politically adept, and a man without personal scandals. He’s not divorced and doesn’t appear to be a drinker. And it’s difficult to imagine him on a racetrack, although like Bob Hawke but unlike Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam, he’s made much of his love of cricket. All this helps make him acceptable to most voters.

Two of his Labor adversaries – Mr Keating and Mark Latham – were quite the opposite; generally overbearing, often quite insulting, and at times even aggressive, all characteristics that most Australians dislike.

The third, Kim Beazley, although sharing some of Mr Howard’s positive attributes, too often resorts to old-style bland Laborite remarks, which recently have become increasingly less convincing.

And the fourth, who most have already forgotten, Simon Crean, simply never registered on what’s now called ‘the radar screen’, in part because he couldn’t portray himself as Mr Howard has done.

The PM’s positives have thus electorally confronted the personified negatives of four failed Labor leaders, which, more than anything, helps explain his election victories and Labor’s decision to dump Mr Crean before he’d even contested one.

Interestingly, one of the contributors to The Howard Factor, Imre Salusinszky, in his chapter, The Howard Idiom, specifically focuses on the signi-ficance of how Mr Howard portrays himself in electronic interviews.

Assessing Mr Howard’s response to a question about anti-George Bush film-maker Michael Moore’s propaganda movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, Salusinszky contends that, in a similar situation: “Paul Keating would surely have unleased the vitriol, while Bob Hawke would probably have experienced a brain explosion.

“Voters recognise that Howard’s relaxed style betrays a high level of self-control, and an equally high level of self-knowledge. Contrary to Keating and Hawke, respectively, there is neither hatred nor hysteria bubbling beneath the surface.”

Salusinszky, an academic-turned-journalist, goes on to attribute Mr Howard’s caution and moderation to his Methodist upbringing, his legal training, “and, above all … his lower-middle-class origins”.

There’s no doubt that the success of any major party depends in large part on the personality and demeanour of its leader, and John Howard has moulded his personality carefully for ongoing victories.

Labor, since dumping Mr Hawke, hasn’t been as well endowed.

Mr Howard did away with the Keating practice of fronting journalists in parliament’s press gallery to help gain favourable coverage.

The PM has side-stepped the gallery.

According to long-time gallery member, Denis Shanahan: “Howard has made himself more accessible than any leader in modern times, giving doorstop interviews at the drop of a hat or holding press conferences in the PM’s courtyard where he will sometimes take questions until the journalists virtually give up.

“But Howard’s first choice of media interviews is to go live, preferably on radio. His appearance on talk-back radio programs is prolific and regular.

“There is a schedule for the big-rating programs and he tries to make time for the small programs and smaller states.”

Putting aside his crucial personal aspects and how he projects them, what is the best way of understanding John Howard?

After reading The Howard Factor’s 24 chapters, it’s difficult not to conclude that he’s largely modelled himself on Bob Hawke – most especially his populism – and Gough Whitlam – most especially his penchant for big government, duplication and centralism.

This mixing, of course, excludes their respective larrikin and bombastic characteristics.

And like Mr Hawke, he’s a permanent campaigner deliberately appealing to populist notions and symbols.

Like Mr Whitlam, however, John Howard is a big government man and a centralist.

The post-war Liberal leaders he thus least resembles are Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser, since both reluctantly expanded government and Canberra’s powers over the states, whereas Mr Howard seems to relish doing so. However, whenever they did it tended to be with electorally popular programs that they announced just prior to elections.

Mr Howard, on the other hand, is like Mr Whitlam in that he sees Canberra as the guiding beacon for action.

One gets the impression that he only tolerates state governments because they’re there.

The Howard Factor’s leading essay, How Howard Governs, by Paul Kelly, puts this well.

“For example, in relation to federalism, Howard has abandoned the Liberal Party’s ritualistic genuflection to state powers,” Kelly writes.

“Nothing could be more removed from the distant administration of Howard’s hero RG Menzies of whom it could be said that the people knew he was there but they rarely saw him.”

And one more Kelly quote.

“Howard’s singular achievement has been to win a re-alignment within Australian politics by detaching a section of the Labor vote and bringing it to the Liberal Party.”

If Kelly’s conclusions and my assessment of Mr Howard’s personal and political proclivities are correct, he is therefore an electorally successful ‘Labor’ PM who has dumped a large part of traditional Liberal philosophy – decentralisation of power via federalism and small government – in favour of Labor’s preference for bigger government.

Those Liberals who value these dumped aspects had nowhere to go, so they continued voting for Howard Liberal candidates.

Meanwhile, a sizeable segment of traditional Labor voters, those unconcerned about such Canberra encroachments, backed the PM’s version of Labor-tainted Liberalism, thereby making Mr Howard, the permanent campaigner, a four-time election winner.

That said, there are other important components to Howardism.

Among these is his firm alignment with Washington, most especially with President George Bush’s so-called “war on terror” and Australia’s involvement in military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The pro-US Howard stand is, of course, in line with John Curtin’s pioneering stance in this regard and the institutionalising of that 1940s re-alignment by the Menzies governments during the 1950s.

However, according to Patrick Walters’s chapter, At War with Terror, the reason for Australia’s unambiguous alignments in Afghanistan and Iraq are not fully explained by Mr Howard’s pro-American stance, which the majority of voters have backed.

“It is impossible to understand Howard’s approach to terrorism without and appreciation of the dramatic personal impact the events of 11 September 2001 had on the PM,” Walters writes.

“The day before the cataclysm, Howard who happened to be on an official visit to Washington DC, met US President George W Bush for the first time. The auspicious encounter marked the 50th anniversary of the ANZUS alliance, Australia’s most important security treaty.”

Walters reveals that the Bush-Howard talks of September 10 considered nuclear proliferation, rogue states like North Korea, and the weapons of mass destruction question.

“The emerging threat posed by Islamist terrorism … did not rate a mention,” Walters discloses.

“The next day everything changed when Islamist terrorists turned four passenger jets into missiles to attack New York and Washington.”

Mr Howard has lost no electoral backing through his resolute stand in this regard, although Walters attributes this, in part, to the fact that Australia has only sustained one casualty in Afghanistan and Iraq, SAS Sergeant Andrew Russell.

In the case of the US that figure is now well over 2,000 and for the UK it stands at 100.

“Howard, unlike George W Bush and British PM Tony Blair, has got through the difficult business with his personal approval rating virtually undiminished,” Walters says.

“Howard has also been extraordinarily fortunate.

“Australia’s extremely modest military contribution to the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan and Iraq have been carefully orchestrated by Government.”

Walters perhaps overlooks here the fact some 100 non-combatant Australians have been killed or maimed in terrorist attacks in Bali and London.

Despite all the contributions to this valuable assessment of Australia’s second longest serving PM – no-one could topple Robert Menzies last century and it’s unlikely anyone will this century – it must be said that it’s still too early to write his epitaph.

However, when that is written, I suspect it won’t be as glowing as some of the contributors to The Howard Factor may expect.

Still awaiting objective assessment by historians – not simply journalists – are questions over the truth or otherwise of the “lying little rodent” allegation; the Iraq-AWB Limited kickback affair, and the mess Mr Howard’s bureaucracy has been in over things like the children overboard, Rau, Alvarez and Tampa affairs.

It would be unwise to forget that Australian Liberalism during last century largely focused on preserving the Australian federation and at the same time limiting the power of government.

These have not been two of Mr Howard’s strongest suits.

What he’s done is help pave the way for future Labor governments to fully dismantle Australia’s federal structures by creating centrally controlled regions, something Labor has sought since 1921, and probably only temporarily dumped during the Hawke years which saw most states in Labor hands.

No Liberal government or opposition after Mr Howard’s departure will be able to complain of or oppose a resurgent Labor centralist drive because that would be sheer and blatant hypocrisy.

I’ve yet to hear a WA federal Liberal MP, especially one who is a Howard government minister, publicly oppose any of Mr Howard’s centralist moves. All have been transformed, since 1996, into Canberra or Howard men and women, not WA’s people in Canberra.

If Labor returns to that path, as it surely will, John Howard will rightly be recognised as the man who paved the way for its 1921 centralist/ unifi-cationist plank to finally be realised.

That would be ironic indeed since the man who drew that plank up was Victorian leftist Maurice Blackburn, the man who also inserted the “socialisation of production, distribution and exchange” clause into Labor’s platform in the same year.

And it was the latter plank that nearly led to Australia’s banks being nationalised by the Chifley Labor government 57 years ago, which Menzies so deftly halted.

This paving of the way for the complete centralisation of Australia is therefore set to become John Howard’s single most important legacy.

That’s surely not something his Liberal parliamentary colleagues expected when they fought so doggedly to oust the Keating govern-ment just more than 10 years ago.

How times have changed, and in just 47 years.


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