The conservative who liberalised the Liberal Party

Former Prime Minister John Howard has delivered his first major speech since his historic concession speech on November 24th 2007, upon receiving the annual Irving Kristol Award for 2008 from the American Enterprise Institute, a neo-conservative thinktank based in the United States. Characteristic of his style of public speaking, the speech itself is fairly long-winded and pedestrian in tone, and touches on a number of the touchstone themes dear to Howard’s philosophical heart. The importance of family and the institution of marriage for society are reiterated. The leadership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are referenced multiple times in the speech in glowing terms. Both the value of free-market economics and the robustness of the relationship between the United States and Australia are reemphasised. Reading this speech, one feels instantly transported back in time a few years. It was clearly written by someone wearing the same ideological straitjacket that the former Prime Minister forced upon the country during his time in office.

The most interesting thing about the speech was the way in which Howard elected to take a few arrogant pot-shots at the new government. Noting that the Rudd Government plans to reverse its widely criticised industrial relations changes (which the former members of his own government have also agreed to), Howard declares Labor’s industrial relations changes to be a mistake. He expresses disappointment that Australian troops will be leaving Iraq, failing, of course, to even acknowledge Defence Force Chief Angus Houston’s public assertion that it is time for Australia’s forces to depart the country. He even has the hubris to contrast Margaret Thatcher’s union-busting antics with his own thoroughly rejected anti-union reforms:

Margaret Thatcher’s transformation of Britain was, ironically enough, to be vindicated by Tony Blair’s embrace of her changes to Britain’s labour laws.

On a smaller scale, in my own country, a number of the more conservative social policies of my government have been endorsed by the new Australian government. The sincerity of its conversion will be tested by experience of office.

And so, amidst some hazy, high-level rhetoric on the foreign-policy challenges facing the West, we have a few petulant jibes from a man who, with his government, was unendorsed by the Australian people last November. Even his colleagues within his own party have sought to rapidly disassociate themselves from him, rubbishing him on television, indefinitely shelving a range of his hallmark policy initiatives, and endorsing as leader someone who has already repudiated a significant portion of Howard’s divisive social agenda. The Opposition Leader most likely to take the reins should (or rather when) the electorate has had enough of Doctor Nelson is of course John Howard’s virulent nemesis from the republican debate, and one of the most “liberal” members of the parliamentary Liberal Party. In the United States, Malcolm Turnbull would without doubt be a Democrat, not a Republican.

These cold hard facts tell the other half of the story regarding John Howard’s legacy as a Prime Minister and a conservative, and it is not looking like things are going to end well for those who want a strong, conservative Liberal Party.