23/01/2007 - 22:00

Howard's tarnished legacy

23/01/2007 - 22:00


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With Labor’s leadership change over made inside 11 months of a scheduled national election, it’s most unlikely John Howard can now stand down from the position of prime minister, even if he so wished.

With Labor’s leadership change over made inside 11 months of a scheduled national election, it’s most unlikely John Howard can now stand down from the position of prime minister, even if he so wished.

Like it or lump it, he’s locked into a fifth prime ministerial contest later this year.

This time it’s against Queenslander, Kevin Rudd, who is copying the Howard campaigning style, which will make the coming contest tougher than the encounters with Paul Keating, Kim Beazley (twice), and Mark Latham.

Although one Melbourne journalist has cautiously suggested 67-year-old Mr Howard could go yet again in 2010 to get within reach of Robert Menzies’ record, that’s difficult to accept.

Election 2007 will, in State Scene’s view, be the last for the man so many once saw as a political cadaver.

But even if Mr Rudd wins the coming electoral clash, one would be compelled to recognise Mr Howard as having been a formidable electoral performer.

That said, there are several aspects of the four-time winning Howard legacy that are far from rosy, with the most significant being his thorough de-authorising of the Liberal Party as the agency of limited – that is, small – and federated or decentralised government.

From its foundation in the mid-1940s until the mid-1990s, the Liberal Party was rightly seen as the one that sought to limit growth of political power and central government, whereas the Labor Party sought to make both ever larger.

This was, therefore, a major distinguishing feature between Australia’s two major parties, one that maintained Liberal Party memberships at high levels for several decades.

Those who sympathised with things such as self help, lower taxation and Australia’s traditional federal arrangements gravitated towards the Liberal Party, founded and led initially by Robert Menzies, then Harold Holt, William McMahon and Malcolm Fraser.

Mr Holt’s successor, John Gorton, was relatively quickly removed because of his flouting of the party’s traditional pro-federalist stance. While this is something Mr Howard has repeated, he hasn’t been similarly treated because of his ongoing electoral successes.

But a decade of Mr Howard’s centralising means future Liberal leaders will be unable to bellow from podiums that Liberalism means limited Canberra controls.

Nor has Liberal deputy and treasurer, Peter Costello, been helpful with his constant calls for something he refers to as ‘new federalism’, which, in fact, seeks to make state governments mere branch offices of Canberra and premiers mere chief administrators for Labor or Liberal-appointed Canberra departmental chiefs.

Post-Howard Liberal leaders will thus have to grapple with the fact that their party is increasingly indistinguishable from Labor in this crucial regard.

And that will make it that much harder for them to win elections.

Although it’s guessing, State Scene suspects the Liberals’ federalist commitment was worth several percentage points at national elections in the outer states.

And since such contests are decided narrowly, Mr Howard’s strangling of their traditional backing for federalism will be a major and ongoing debilitating outcome of his prime ministerial years.

Secondly, despite Mr Rudd’s bid to portray Mr Howard as a neo-liberal in favour of limited government and spending, the opposite is the case, with recipients of the Howard largesse showing no overall electoral gratitude, something that’s unlikely to change in years to come.

Sydney political economist, Andrew Norton, in the Centre for Independent Studies’ Policy Magazine, assesses the Howard-Costello duo’s big-spending proclivity well.

“Within the broad church (as the PM likes to call the Liberal Party) of centre-right politics in Australia there are competing ideas about policy priorities,” Mr Norton writes.

“Though people identifying with the coalition parties still prefer lower taxes to more social spending, the record shows that the smaller government movement of the 1980s and early 1990s did not win out.

“Perhaps its supporters did not realise that their most formidable opponents were conservatives, not the Labor Party.

“The ‘modern conservatism’ of John Howard, by foregoing the now-controversial conservative social policy of earlier eras, uses costly spending programs to support families and social cohesion.

“This is inconsistent with shrinking the size of government.

“The eventual defeat of the current federal government, perhaps as soon as late 2007, will inevitably trigger a wide-ranging discussion on the centre-right of goals and strategies.

“A strong case can be made that the coalition received little direct political credit for outspending Labor in education, health and welfare.

“The Australian Election Survey’s question on which party’s views are closest to the respondent’s shows a narrowing of Labor’s lead in health and education since 1998, but with the coalition still in a worse relative position than it was in 1996.

“In Newspoll’s regular polling of which party would best handle various issues, Labor had a larger lead in October 2006 on health and welfare than it did when it last held office.”

In other words, the Howard years have disappointed key backers, with recipients of ever-larger public spending showing no gratitude.

The long-term electoral impact for the Liberal Party can only be seen as ominous, with the outcome of Mr Norton’s predicted “wide-ranging discussion…of goals and strategies” likely to be a torrid and drawn-out ordeal.

This is likely to mean the Liberals, nationally at least, are on the brink of an era similar to that which Britain’s Conservatives encountered after the defeat of John Major (remember him?) from which they’ve yet to recover.

One can already ask is it coincidence that, during the Howard years, his party has performed dismally at all state and territory elections against Labor.

But there are other rarely highlighted difficulties, not least the deplorable state of the Howard-led Liberal Party itself.

Here’s how long-time Liberal Party powerbroker, Senator Nick Minchin, its national deputy director between 1977 and 1983 and South Australian director from 1986 until 1995, recently described this other debilitating feature.

“In 1949 when the Liberal Party first won federal office, membership totalled 197,984, spread across 1,651 branches (representing an overage 120 members per branch),” he said.

“Therefore 10.9 per cent of Liberal voters were in the party, or some 4.3 per cent of the formal vote.

“In 1983, the Valder Committee reported that membership had fallen to 103,000 representing 3.5 per cent of the Liberal vote, or only 1.2 per cent of the total vote.

“In 2004, membership stood at 80,000 constituting some 1.7 per cent of the Liberal vote and just 0.7 per cent of all votes.

“This position is not tenable if the party hopes to keep winning elections.

“It may be possible to win elections from government with a limited membership, but when we are next in opposition federally, we will confront serious competitive advantages.

“Weighing up alongside Labor are allied battalions of well-funded unions, noisy self-interested pressure groups, a sympathetic media, and opinionated academics divorced from all reality, developers with close relationships to Labor-controlled councils, and a big business community increasingly nervous about offending Labor state governments.”

Not stated by Senator Minchin is the fact that most party members are on the older side of 55, perhaps even 60, meaning its protracted membership slump will soon tumble more dramatically.

Like it or lump it, the Howard federalism sell-out, his opting for bigger rather than smaller government, and all-round failure by his party to boost membership are three little commented upon legacies of his years.

This, of course, helps explain why Howard governments have boosted dollar allocations markedly to individual MPs for propaganda printing, staffers and unnecessary and wasteful electoral mail-outs before elections and installed powerful centrally linked computers to monitor public mood via voter contacts with Liberal MP electoral offices.

Something has been needed to compensate for dwindling membership and help boost his party’s electoral support.

Mr Howard will certainly be credited with being a four-time, perhaps even five-time, winner.

But what his longer-term legacy will ultimately be across the rank and file of his ever weakening party, which provided him the opportunity, indeed, privilege, to be Australia’s prime minister, and for so long, is likely to be quite a different matter.


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