The Howard Years, Part One

The first installment of the ABC’s much awaited series The Howard Years screened this evening, and needless to say, I tuned in. The fairly relentless promotional material for the program promised that it would shed some light on the Howard Government years and offer up some real insights into the different personalities whose involvement shaped its progress. This first program focused squarely on the Coalition’s first term in office from 1996 to 1998, covering in particular the Port Arthur massacre and the government’s response to it, the government’s response to Wik, the emergence of Pauline Hanson, the Corrigans/MUA waterfront confrontation, and the introduction of the GST.

The show opened with a number of key political figures from the Howard era describing (or attempting to describe!) John Howard in a single word. “Tenacious” and “determined” seemed to pop up more than once, as did “conviction”. Bruce Baird got a bit excited and used three words, “a consummate politician”. Tony Abbott offered up “magnificent”, in an amazingly snivelling fashion. Peter Costello settled for “relentless”, albeit with some difficulty and obviously a lot of forethought. Indeed, the careful and methodical way in which he framed his contributions does make one think that he is trying to preserve his legacy for possible future use in the political sphere.

Setting aside Christopher Pearson’s noxiously pessimistic (and as it turns out, way off the mark) preview of the show in The Australian for a moment, I think the program did serve as a potent reminder of a few things. First off, the Prime Minister probably did not receive the credit he was due for acting on a tightening of gun laws following the Port Arthur massacre. As John Anderson pointedly mentioned on the program, even he at the time, owned what John Howard would consider an arsenal of weapons. There must have been a lot of pressure on Howard from the National Party not to act, and turning on his own constituencies in the way that he did took a certain degree of righteous political courage.

Secondly, it is increasingly looking as though Peter Costello is going to come out of the The Howard Years smelling of roses and with a golden halo hovering above his head. He has already, probably rightly to be fair, been credited with kickstarting the decision for the Liberal Party to preference One Nation last, behind Labor. John Howard neglected to offer his perspective on the exact circumstances regarding the decision to preference One Nation last, so I think we have to assume that had not yet decided to do so when Costello pre-empted him by announcing he would put One Nation last in his own seat of Higgins. Costello also took the opportunity to take a swing at Howard for failing to tackle the Pauline Hanson issue until seven months after her maiden speech, and for hijacking his launch of the GST.

Thirdly, the Howard Government’s treatment of the Corrigans/MUA waterfront affair does not appear any less ruthless or ideologically motivated a decade on. Peter Reith, whose contributions were featured quite liberally in the program, made light of the dispute and his role in it, and frankly came off looking flippant and more out of touch than he has ever appeared. I am not sure if the fact that he has been away from the Howard Government and his old mates for a while now has tempered his recollection of events, but he seemed to be quite pleased and amused with himself when recalling the dispute.

Finally, its remains quite stupefying that the Howard Government’s GST crusade was kicked off by the Prime Minister without explicit sanction from his Treasurer and Finance Minister. Presumably the policy process became a bit tighter as the years went on, but when a major initiative with far-reaching political implications is announced by a leader without endorsement by or extensive discussion with the senior members of their team, the government is sick. Perhaps to a greater extent than anybody really appreciated at the time, the Howard Government ran into the 1998 election campaign on pure political adrenalin: battered, bruised and off the rails. One wonders how history would have been different if the Coalition’s lack of control of its own trajectory was more evident to the public then.

ELSEWHERE:More over at Larvatus Prodeo and Public Opinion.

Talking the financial crisis up and down

There can be no denying that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan, in particular, have brought a concerted air of solemnity to their communications regarding the global financial crisis. It has become almost cliched for our leaders and media commentators to assert that these are “tough times that we are living in”, or to compare the recent machinations in our financial markets to Black Monday, the oil shocks of the 1970’s, or even the mother of them all, the Great Depression. The national mood is a heady brew of overstated pessimism and introspection, and few have the confidence to predict exactly how events will unfold in the future.

The importance of confidence for consumers and the world’s remarkably flaky financial markets can’t really be overestimated at this stage. This creates a bit of a conundrum for government; on the one hand, the situation should probably be talked up, in order to send positive signals out there to those willing to listen. On the other hand, the government needs to keep its mood in touch with that of the Australian people. The last thing the Rudd Government wants to do is engage in rank triumphalism over Australia’s position in relation to the financial crisis when a lot of people out there are hurting as a result of it.

It would seem that the Liberal Party is happy to send positive signals with respect to the financial crisis, and to wear on its sleeve any criticisms arising from it being out of touch (some would suggest this is its natural disposition). Shadow Treasurer Julie Bishop appeared on Channel Nine this morning suggesting that Rudd needs to be more positive in relation to the crisis, offering this hyperbolic vignette to support her case:

Ms Bishop said shopkeepers in an Adelaide shopping centre had sent her a clear message.

“A number of shopkeepers … said to me that every time the Prime Minister goes on the nightly news and says ‘it’s going to be tough and ugly and hard’, they know that sales will be flat the next day.”

Former Prime Minister John Howard sent the Rudd Government a similar message on Fox News yesterday, urging the government to steer clear of comparisons of today’s crisis with the Great Depression. He is not without a point, but clearly the line upon which the government needs to walk here is fraught. Federal Labor is getting hit by the Opposition and some punters for talking the crisis up. If it talks the crisis down while the problems related with the crisis remain, it will also get hit by Opposition and the punters.

Rudd and Swan, knowing that this truly is a global financial crisis and that for the most part it is beyond Australia’s control, are erring to the negative side at the moment. Although we could perhaps do without some of the “Great Depression” hyperbole, I am not sure this is necessarily a bad thing given the reality of the situation that Australia faces. When the United States sneezes, we need to do what we can and hope for the best, because we simply don’t have the economic equivalent of an influenza vaccine on hand.

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.