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.