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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4168

Mr BRIGGS (9:30 PM) —I rise tonight to comment on a recently released book covering the final term of the Howard government, the rise to the leadership of the Labor Party of the current Prime Minister and the success of the Labor Party at the subsequent election. The book, To the Bitter End, written by Peter Hartcher from the Sydney Morning Herald, covers the last three years, and, in particular, the last year, of the Howard government.

Tonight I wish to place on the public record a correction that I believe needs to be made to a section of the book that discusses the behaviour of the former Prime Minister in the months leading up to the 2007 election. The book suggests that the former Prime Minister became increasingly moody and frustrated because of poor polling in 2007. Page 7 of the book reads as follows:

Although he successfully concealed it from public view, Howard suffered intense moods swings. He frequently vented his frustration on senior staff, yelling and shouting. The greatest single cause of Howard’s anger, according to several of those who worked intimately with him, was poor polling. The polls ruled Howard’s emotions.

As a senior member of the former Prime Minister’s staff who, in the final term, handled one of the most contentious issues, I tell this House very genuinely and very publicly that this is simply not true. I do not intend to criticise the author. I am sure that he was given this information by a source he considered reliable. However, I say very directly that this claim is not true.

John Howard is one of the most polite and measured people I have ever met. His character speaks for itself. Even under the most trying circumstances during the last 12 months he maintained integrity far beyond what most people would have managed. That is not to say that at times events did not frustrate him and, for that matter, the rest of us. Indeed they did. However, the suggestion that each time there was a bad poll he lost his cool and ranted and raved at staff is simply not true. In fact, what always amazed my colleagues and me was that his reaction to bad polls was to dedicate himself to working even harder for the cause he believed in. He very rarely used colourful language. As many of us in this place know, politics is full of legends about abusive ministers and MPs on both sides of this House. John Howard was not one of them. As Prime Minister, John Howard was as he is today, a gracious, polite and dedicated man who did great things for our country.

I rise on this issue not to attack the author, who I commend for adding to our historical record, but because the Australian people deserve to know that John Howard as Prime Minister was as he appeared. He was not a fake. He did not pretend to be something he was not. This is not just me saying this. I note that in an article written by Tom Switzer in Spectator magazine—a very fine magazine indeed—on 9 May 2009, several of my former colleagues also refuted any suggestion that the former Prime Minister behaved in this fashion. David Luff; Stephen Galilee, John Kunkel and Andrew Shearer all publicly deny this was the case, as has, I understand, Arthur Sinodinos.

I can also say to the House that I travelled on many occasions with John Howard on the VIP aircraft and he treated the staff of those aircraft with absolute respect, even if the food he wanted was not on the plane. While John Howard did not need the services of hair dryer, I am sure that, had he needed one, he would not have thrown a tizz if he could not get one while touring Afghanistan. Finally, in all of John Howard’s time as Prime Minister he had two personal assistants. The second was on staff at the end and today continues to serve the Liberal Party faithfully. And he would not go through as many as nine personal assistants, as I understand current events, in just 18 months.

John Howard was a great servant of our country—indeed, he is a giant of our history. He left this country stronger, prouder and more prosperous. It was and remains the single greatest honour of my life to have served this man, and I am sure he will in time be recognised as one of our greatest Prime Ministers. It is important therefore that those who seek to demonise his legacy—and I do not count the author of this book as being in that club—are corrected at every opportunity.

There is little doubt that since losing the last election John Howard has held himself as a true statesman, particularly in comparison to others who have left that high office. Others should do the same to him and to his legacy.