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John Howard's policies: formed over a lifetime, so why were we surprised?

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John Howard’s policies: formed over a lifetime, so why were we surprised?

Kim Murray 1

University of Adelaide Politics Discipline

ABSTRACT. The policies that John Howard brought into government since 1996 are those that he held for decades as Young Liberal and parliamentarian. Consequently, there has been a remarkable continuit y and consistency in the beliefs and political ideologies that were translated into government policy. That Howard has adopted policies of privatisation, productivity , user-pays, mutual obligation, unfettered trade and financial markets, and is now revolutionising industrial relations as one of the last items on his economic reform age nda, should come as no surprise. While critics appeared to concentrate on past leade rship failures, outdated 1950s nostalgia, allegations of racism, lack of charisma, and his harsh economic rationalism at the cost of equity, John Howard pursued his poli cies and ambitions with persistence, shrewdness and extraordinary fidelity. Today he is a powerful, polished politician, and many express surprise at this “unex pected” political domination. However, a study of Howard and Hansard from the 1970s signals how he intended to change Australia’s social and economic landscape.

Although John Howard has been Prime Minister for a decade, there has been an

element of continuity in most of his policies long before 1996. Indeed, one can track this

consistency since his Young Liberal days, and befor e he entered parliament in 1974.

This paper will not pretend to chronicle all policies and every continuity and coincidence

of John Howard’s political life, as it constitutes research towards a doctoral thesis, and is

a work in progress. Nor does it offer judgment on the Howard government policies and

how they have impacted on Australia and its interna tional reputation. What it hopes to

achieve, however, is to highlight the connecting th reads between John Howard’s policies

throughout his parliamentary career, and with those that are in place today.

1 PhD candidate in the Politics Discipline, University of Adelaide.


One may ask why it is important to study John Howard’s policies from an historical

and intellectual biography point of view. The answ er is that he remains one of the most

neglected biographical political subjects in Austra lia, as Tom Switzer has pointed out in

his Quadrant article, “John Howard and the missing biographers”. 2 While millions of

words have been written about the Howard government, it is curious ‐ considering the

impact of a decade of his leadership on Australia’s economic, humanitarian and social

landscape ‐ that the man himself has eluded sustain ed study at a biographical or historical

level, as opposed, say, to the huge literary and an alytical interest in Labor leaders. By the

same token, as pointed out by Peter Hartcher, while the Labor Party may write about

itself, Howard is also writing, but he is writing l egislation that affects the nation’s future.

He is making history “in the statutes, not the book stores”. 3 Peter van Onselen and Wayne

Errington, who are presently working on a sole 4 Howard biography, feel the “time has

come for scholars to take Howard more seriously”. 5

Despite his lack of attraction to biographers, and what Michelle Grattan calls his

“awesome ordinariness”, 6 John Howard presents as an interesting subject, if one

considers the family, church, and political influen ces that appear to have provided the

foundations for the principles and values that late r converted to government policy. Of

particular relevance, in a public life that has spa nned three decades ‐ during which

enormous economic and social changes took place ‐ he has been remarkably fixed on his

views on industrial relations, tax reform, small go vernment, immigration, family,

freedom of choice, incentive, privatisation, and th e concept of a “One Australia”,

although, as noted by Judith Brett, he has, like Me nzies, creatively reworked Liberal

Party rhetoric to suit his times. 7

2 Switzer, Tom, “John Howard and the missing biographers”, Quadrant, Vol. XLVIII, No.10, October 2004. 3

Hartcher, Peter, “History in the statutes, not the bookst ores”, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November, 2005. 4 As far as I know, this is the only biography in progr ess of Howard. I would like to know of others. 5

Onselen, Peter van, and Wayne Errington, “Howard betters Ming”, Australian, 21 December, 2004. 6 Grattan, Michelle, quoted in Malcolm Schmidtke and Gay Alcorn, “Being John Howard”, Age, 21 August, 2004. 7

Brett, Judith, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class. From Alfred Deakin to John Howard, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, p.184.


Yet Howard in many ways is a political paradox, cal ling himself a social

conservative and economic radical. 8 Indeed, once committed to economic reform (with

the irony, of course, that much was completed by th e time he, and the Coalition came to

office), it has been framed within a conservative, even rigid, social context. His personal

values were hewn in the post-war Menzies “golden era”, 9 a stable family life, and in the

shade of a fading Empire and a Cold War. A feature of Howard’s life in this policy

incubation period was the fact that it was, as note d by Gerard Henderson, predominantly

lacking in exposure to, and his consequent denial o f, community diversity. 10 The early

limited trajectory is noteworthy: “Howard’s politi cal range is shaped by the parameters

of his own life”, 11 Paul Kelly says, while for Brett, Howard’s voice s poke as the “person

who bases their judgments and views on the world th ey know”. 12 He grew up within a

traditional, protestant, patriotic, lower middle-cl ass, Sydney suburban family that

supported ‐ and reflected ‐ the ideals of Menzies’ new Liberal Party. In his 1974

parliamentary maiden speech, Howard declared that he had never doubted the basic

philosophy of the Liberal Party, 13 and admitted to a Liberal Party audience in 2000 t hat

he was the “child of the party organisation” and “I love the Liberal Party and everything

it stands for”. 14 Yet while he saw the Menzies era of his childhood and youth as one of

stability and prosperity, founded on Deakinite Fede ration aspirations and liberalism, he

was later to emphatically reject the Keynesian econ omics of Menzies, and embrace the

new economic world order of fresh heroes, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, 15 who

had themselves discovered Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. And while embracing

modern economics, the desirability of retaining the traditional family grouping remained


8 Abraham, Matthew, “A confident Howard climbs back into the ring”, Advertiser, 15 March, 1989. 9 John Howard thought of the Menzies period as a “golden era” when “Australia had a sense of sense of family, social stability and optimism … reasonable levels of economic growth, virtually no unemployment, low inflation, social stability”. See Gerard Henderson, A Howard Government? Inside the Coalition, HarperCollins, Pymble, 1995, p.31. 10

Henderson, ibid., p.29. 11 Kelly, Paul, “The Common Man as Prime Minister”, Paradise Divided. The Changes, the Challenges, the Choices for Australia, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 2000, p.21. 12

Brett, Judith, op cit., p.211. 13 Howard, John, House of Representatives (HR) Hansard, 26 September, 1974, p.1912. 14

Howard, John, Address at the Liberal National Convention , Melbourne, 16 April, 2000. 15 See Howard’s speech when elected Chairman of the International Democratic Union : “the towering figures of world conservatism … Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan”. Keynote speech to the International Democratic Union, Washington DC, 10 June 2002.


A study of Hansard from 1974 indicates a continuity of language and philosophy

in John Howard’s speeches, framed within a repetiti ve narrative. The earlier speeches

offer more insight into the politician than the lat er, careful and polished statements of a

leader who has grown too sophisticated and wily to be caught by careless words.

Nonetheless, they cover the same ideological ground . The single-minded focus tends to

remind of Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog in the essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox.16 Unlike

the scattered fox, the hedgehog has “one big pictur e”, “one single central vision” “one

universal, organizing principle”, and I suggest tha t Howard has coalesced all his personal

beliefs and convictions into his own one “large pic ture”. That picture is of a free-market

nation that is cohesive, prosperous, egalitarian, “ mainstream”, confident of its national

identity, exchanging social benefits for mutual obl igation, 17 where the traditional family

is sacrosanct, the government has a sovereign right to say who may or may not come over

its borders, and where, as he stated in the 1988 Future Directions document and repeated

consistently since, “the things that unite us are m ore important than the things that divide

us”. 18 This is a story from which he rarely deviates.

Having said that, however, one of the Howard consis tencies is his pragmatism.

He, more than most politicians, understands the imp otence of policies without power.

History has shown that some of Howard’s policies may be modified, subject to strategic

retreat, or postponed until more propitious times, like a Senate majority. He has also

employed a pre-election strategy of coyness about p resenting substantive policies, as in

1995, when his Headland speeches ‐ strong on values ‐ were criticised for being


Berlin, Isaiah, The hedgehog and the fox, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1953, p.22. 17 See Howard’s speech to the National Press Club on 25 January , 2006 where he defines the principle of mutual obligation: “individuals ought to do something in return for the support they receive from society”. A similar sentiment is expressed in Future Directions, where welfare efficiency is achieved through “general community involvement in both physical and financial terms”, p.74. 18

Howard, John and Ian Sinclair, Future Directions. It’s time for plain thinking. Liberal and National Parties, December, 1988, p.13. John Gorton used similar w ords as prime minister: “our common history and our common future show that in this nation the thing s that unite us are infinitely greater than the things that divide us”. See Graham Freudenberg, A figure of speech. A political memoir, John Wiley, Milton, Qld, 2005, p.98.


“flummery” and cliché-ridden. 19 Nonetheless, while long-held policies do normall y

reappear, even if unpopular, Howard has been dogged with frequent accusations of being

poll-driven, of responding only to opinion polls. Less than nine months into office in

1996, the Age said that rarely had a “prime minister more consist ently fashioned himself

and his behaviour to suit public opinion”. 20 The counter argument is that Howard has

often flown in the face of public hostility ‐ on t he sale of Telstra, the war in Iraq, the

Goods and Services Tax (GST), and industrial relati ons ‐ to push through his legislative

agenda. Also, as suggested by Murray Goot, if “Howard was influenced by the polls on

issues such as guns, immigration, and asylum-seeker s, it was because the polls pointed

him in the direction he already wanted to go”. 21 Howard conceded in 2003 that he had

been accused “from time to time” of being poll-driv en, but, he said, arguing his case at a

time of public protest about sending troops to Iraq , “for goodness sake …. Ours has been

a government of consistency and commitment through times of public support and also

times of public reservation and public criticism”. 22 But it is axiomatic that he, like any

modern political leader, takes careful heed of opin ion polls and focus groups. The

pragmatist in John Howard forces the admission that , “when the public says no in a

democracy, you’ve really got to take notice of them . 23 Nonetheless, he is prepared for

robust persuasion within the community, as with the GST or industrial relations reform,

if, by his lights, it is necessary for good governa nce. 24 As the Federal Director of the

Liberal Party said in a speech in Washington in Jan uary this year, Howard has been

prepared to make “very difficult but necessary deci sions to drive effective rather than


See, for example, “Who is the real John Howard”, Australian Financial Review, 27 September, 1995, and Gerard Henderson, op cit., p.106. . 20 Age, 30 November, 1996, cited in Murray Goot, “Politicians, Pu blic Policy and Poll Following: Conceptual Difficulties and Empirical Realities”, Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol.40, No.2, June, 2005, pp.189-205. 21

Goot, Murray, ibid. 22 Howard, John, Address to Victorian State Council of Liber al Party, 29 March, 2003. 23

Howard, John, interview with Liz Jackson, ABC TV Four Corners, “An Average Australian Bloke”, 19 February, 1996. 24

See Paul Kelly, “Interview with John Howard”, in 100 years: The Australian story, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2001: “I will change an institution and camp aign with passion and vigour to change it … if I think it is holding the country back” (p.248).


ideological outcomes”, 25 although I would suggest a neat conflation in John Howard’s

mind between desirable outcomes and his ideological principles.

John Howard has shown extraordinary consistency, pragmatism and conviction in

the formulation and implementation of his policies. The tenacity ‐ some say

stubbornness ‐ with which he holds his views, is fr eely admitted. On the eve of the 1996

election, he said, “the principles and values that have driven me all the time I’ve been in

politics are still with me”. 26 To a Four Corners interviewer in the same year, he said:

“When you look over the last 15 years and the great battle of ideas on re-structuring the

Australian economy, I was the author of the two gre atest ideas that have affected the

Australian economy”. 27 And later, still in the context of economic refo rm, “if you look

back at my 25 years in politics, particularly my ti me from the early 1980s onwards, you’ll

see a consistent pattern”. 28

This paper will focus on a pattern of continuity in selected areas only: industrial

relations, the family, immigration, the concept of “choice”, and the “Australian identity”.

It will not cover, for example, the question of Abo rigines, although it is well-recognised

that John Howard has chosen not to offer an apology to the Stolen Generations, for

reasons he has consistently explained, and in Future Directions hinted at mainstreaming

administrative processes to best address the inhere nt disadvantages of Indigenous

People. 29 Nor will it cover foreign affairs, although it is interesting to note that a recent

study by Michael Wesley has similarly revealed, in relation to Asia and over the past

decade, an “extraordinary continuity in Howard’s ph ilosophies, rhetoric and actions”. 30


Loughnane, Brian, “The Howard Government: Ten Years of Achievement for Australia”, Remarks to Hudson Institute, Washington DC, 26 January, 2006. 26 See Gwynneth Singleton, “Introduction: Howard’s Way”, in The Howard Government, ed. Gwynneth Singleton, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000, p.4, and Australian, 29 February, 1996. 27

Howard, John, interview with Liz Jackson, op cit. 28 Howard, John, in Paul Kelly, 100 years, op cit, p.243. 29

Future Directions, p.96. 30 Wesley, Michael, “Howard’s way: northerly neighbours and western friends”, Griffith Review, edition 9, Up North: Myths, Threats and Enchantment. Griffith University, 2005.


When considering John Howard’s policies, there are two key documents central to

his philosophy and personality: his maiden speech in parliament, 31 and the later Coalition

policy document, Future Directions. In his first speech in parliament, as an Opposition

backbencher, he spoke about preserving a “sense of local identity, a sense of community

and a sense of belonging to one’s own particular pa rt of the world”, 32 and warned of the

dissipation of the traditional Australian way of li fe. He advocated greater taxation

benefits for private schools, and agued that commun ities would flourish and social

welfare provided only through the creation of indiv idual wealth, 33 themes and sentiments

that today remain within his lexicon. He argued fo r a fairer, more equitable taxation

system between the Federal government and States, and although he had clearly not

devised his GST, one can detect its struggle for li fe. Unless there was a more equitable

taxation system, he claimed, “our basic federal str ucture will break down”. 34

Future Directions, subtitled, It’s time for plain thinking, outlined fairly radical

economic reform against traditional and familiar so cial values. It was released towards

the end of a decade of difficulty, conflict and ten sion for the Liberal Party, both for

leadership struggles and for the ideological (“wet” or “dry”?) battle to resolve the

direction in which the party should head. Accordi ng to Howard, as embattled

Opposition Leader at the time, the document contain ed the Coalition’s values, beliefs and

policies, all weighed up against three main questio ns: “Does the proposal strengthen the

family? … give individuals more incentive and hope? … give a preference to private

enterprise over government enterprise and government monopoly”. 35 These were the key

issues. Although its social content was mocked and satirised at the time for a perceived

nostalgia for the 1950s, its economic ambitions wer e the antithesis of a Menzies era. And

while Howard was unable to convince many of his own “wet”, more traditional social

liberal colleagues that Future Directions was not only the key to returning the party to


See Richard McGregor, “Philosophy stamped in maiden speech”, Australian, 18 May, 1999. 32 Howard, HR, Hansard, 26 September, 1974, p.1911. 33

Ibid.p.1913. Also, Marcus Einfeld, who attended Law S chool with Howard says that he, Howard, believed in the “trickle down” theory, where, if one took care o f the wealthy, “money would eventually find its way to the less fortunate through opportunities funded by the rich”. Quoted in Robert Wainright and Tony Stephens, “Canterbury Tales”, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 September, 2004. 34

Howard, John, HR, Hansard, 26 September, 1974, p.1913. 35 Ibid., 13 April, 1989, p.1634.


government and the right philosophical message for the times, it “seriously worried the

ALP”. 36 Bob Hawke was, apparently, the “first to perceiv e its potential appeal, white

picket fence and all”. 37 What it did represent was a first modern attempt to lead the

Liberal Party towards a coherent synthesis of socia l and economic policies in line with

national imperatives, against a backdrop of rapidly changing international trends.

Interleaved throughout words like “deregulation”, “ limited government role”, “reduced

protection”, “competition”, “wage bargaining”, and “voluntary agreements”, were those

reflecting familiar virtues: home, thrift, initia tive, family, self-sufficiency, independence

and national pride. It was a brave gymnastic act o f looking forward while glancing

backwards. 38 It was also an ambitious project to convince thos e who felt shell-shocked

and displaced by the economic reform programme of the Labor government. While

Howard saw the risk that the “soft and reassuring v alues” contained in Future Directions

would be seen as “being at odds with a tough economic approach”, 39 he felt it essential to

convince the electorate and his colleagues that soc ial stability was possible even during

radical economic restructuring. It was fortuitous that the document’s directions were a

perfect fit with his moral code and economic princi ples.

What can be seen now is that it offered an insight into the direction that John

Howard intended to take Australia when he led the n ation. When quizzed by a Bulletin

journalist in October last year, Howard admitted th at Future Directions was considered

“a radical departure” for the Liberal Party, althou gh its policies were now “quite similar

to his current approach”. 40 Michelle Grattan wrote twelve years after its pu blication that

its thrust “could be found in the Coalition policie s of the following decade”, 41 as did


Duffy, Michael, “Who is John Howard and why are they saying these things about him?” The Independent Monthly, February, 1996, pp.28-37. 37 Freudenerg, Graham, op cit., p.248. 38

John Kerin, ALP Minister for Primary Industries and En ergy, called Future Directions a policy of “jumping forward into the 1950s”, HR, Hansard, 7 March, 1989, p.511. 39

Kitney, Geoff, “Howard coy about policy details”, Australian Financial Review, 6 March, 1989. 40 See Tony Wright, “The last laugh”, Bulletin, 19 October, 2005. 41

Michelle Grattan, ed., “John Winston Howard”, in Australian Prime Ministers, New Holland, Sydney, 2003, p.455, 3 nd ed..


Carol Johnson in 2002 when she said that, in many r espects, it was a “blueprint for the

Howard Government”. 42

Tax reform and an overhaul of the industrial relati ons system underpinned John

Howard’s main picture of national reform, with Future Directions offering smaller

government, lower taxes, and labour market flexibil ity. It promised not to introduce a

broad based consumption tax in the first term of of fice, although he had made no secret

of his support for moving taxes away from income to expenditure. While the GST had

been a risky policy, Howard had never abandoned it. In 1981 he failed to convince the

Fraser government to introduce a broad-based tax, a nd supported Paul Keating’s aborted

effort to have the Labor government introduce it in the mid-1980s. “If we really want to

reform the Australian taxation system … to take the load off those marginal rates of

personal taxation, we have to bring in a broad-base d consumption tax, 43 Howard said in

parliament in 1985. It was to appear again to a do omed reception in Hewson’s

Fightback! and became temporarily the “never ever” GST, until it resurfaced as the

central plank for the 1998 Federal election.

There are patterns to John Howard’s life and philos ophies, but one of enduring

hostility has been towards unions and compulsory un ionism, whether on the building site

or university campus. This may be traced back, per haps, to days when his father and

grandfather ran a garage and opposed government and union interference, leading to

jubilation when the Chifley government ‐ with its p etrol rationing and coal strikes ‐ was

beaten by the Menzies government in 1949. 44 It is interesting, therefore, to note that

Howard’s first parliamentary Question Without Notice in 1974 related to a union dispute

in his own electorate of Bennelong involving a blac k ban on the Lane Cove Post Office

because four employees had refused to join the unio n. 45 He had made no secret that he

wished to emasculate trade unions, based on a perce ption that their power would


Johnson, Carol, “Australian political science and the study o f discourse”. Paper presented at Disciplinary History of Political Science Stream of the Jubilee conference of the Australasian Political Studies Association, Australian National University, Canberra, Octobe r 2002. 43

Howard, John, HR, Hansard, 20 March, 1985, p. 586. 44 Cockburn, Milton, “What Makes Johnny Run”, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 January, 1989. 45

Howard, John, HR, Hansard, 25 November, 1974, p.3940.


undermine social order. In a speech to the Young L iberals in 1986, amongst the five

principles for which the Liberal Party stood ‐ indi vidual freedom, national and family

security, enterprise and self-reliance, pursuit of success and excellence and compassion

for those in genuine need of help ‐ Howard was unequivocal that “a keystone of [Liberal]

policy was a determination to break the power of th e trade union movement, which

threatened civil liberties as well as economic and political freedom”. 46

Later in parliament in 1989, when arguing against L abor’s Higher Education

Funding Amendment Bill he drew on his own experiences at Sydney University as a law

student to highlight his objection to paying any fo rm of compulsory union fees. He said:

When I attended the University of Sydney law school in the late 1950s …. The

meagre amenities provided then were a very poor recompense for the compulsory

fees that were extracted from us, as they have cont inued to be extracted from

generations of students who have attended the Unive rsity of Sydney …. it is a

very sorry day when this Government proposes to use the money power of the

Federal Constitution … to coerce State governments and universities into

maintaining an insidious form of compulsory unionis m. 47

Presciently, he declared in that debate that the “b attle will go on”, and indeed it did, with

the introduction of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Co mpulsory

Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill in 2005, which sought, as its purpose, to “prevent

higher education providers from requiring their stu dents to become members of student

organizations or to require them to pay fees for se rvices and amenities that are not of an

academic nature”. 48 This was a third attempt to prohibit compulsory s tudent union fees,

but with support from the Senate in December 2005, Howard finally achieved his goal.

No longer would students have to pay for “meagre amenities”, but, more importantly, by

his lights, not “coerced into compulsory unionism”.


Quoted in David Barnett with Pru Goward, John Howard Prime Minister, Viking, Ringwood, 1997, p.350. 47

Howard, John, HR, Hansard, 29 November, 1989, p.3183. 48 Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compu lsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005, Parliament of Australia, Parliamentary Library, Bills Digest , 22 June, 2005, no.187, 2004-05.


From the university campus he took his battle into the workplace. When, for

example, the Hawke government sought to levy a training tax on corporations with a

payroll above $200,000, Howard gave this interestin g insight into the time when he was

an articled clerk with Sydney solicitors, and the d amage he considered was caused by a

compulsory award system, and the unionists who sought to enforce it: “Do honourable

members know what destroyed the articled clerk syst em? It was the introduction of an

award … because [of] some zealous minimum wage people,49 he told parliament in 1990.

Consequently, much of his industrial relations rhet oric ‐ and, it has to be admitted,

legislative action ‐ has centred around Liberal Par ty policies which embrace voluntary

work agreements, opting out of the arbitration syst em, employee share ownership,

flexible awards, voluntary unions, and ‐ crucially for the 1960s articled clerk who had

been so offended by compulsory awards ‐ freedom of choice. 50

Industrial relations reform was the key to economic success, according to

Howard. In Future Directions, it is claimed that a “more flexible system for sett ing

wages and work practices is needed if we are to imp rove productivity and

competitiveness and create more jobs, more investment and sustained economic

growth”. 51 In the WorkChoices legislation introduced into parliament in 2005, and which

was designed to encapsulate Howard’s goals of overhauling the entire industrial relations

system, the keywords of “flexibility”, “productivit y”, and “economic prosperity”, 52

reappear. In particular, he had definitively fulfi lled his 1985 promise of a “different role

for the Arbitration Commission under a coalition go vernment”. 53

Two difficult issues that have shadowed John Howard are race and immigration.

He has persistently claimed to be non-racist, despi te taunts and accusations to the


Howard, John, HR, Hansard, 16 May, 1990, p.699. 50 Ibid., 26 May, 1988, p. 3145. 51

Future Directions, p.38. 52 Howard, John, “Howard announces details of industrial r elations changes”, 9 October, 2005. 53

Howard, John, HR, Hansard, 27 November, 1985, p.3798.


contrary. 54 For example, in a speech given both to the Liber al Party and in parliament in

1984, he “expressly rejected the proposition that t he Liberal Party should take a stand

against Asian immigration”. 55 What he has trenchantly and consistently maintain ed,

however, is the right of a nation to determine the rate and composition of i ts immigration

programmes, based on the need to maintain social co hesion. To a traumatised post-September 11 electorate, he adopted as a slogan ‐ e choing words used in his campaign

launch and which received an enthusiastic response from the party faithful ‐ that “we will

decide who comes to this country and the circumstan ces in which they come”. 56 As harsh

as that sentiment was, it was not new. In 1988 he accused the Hawke government of

abrogating its responsibilities by appearing to put a caveat on the right of a sovereign

nation “to determine who shall enter and remain in Australia.” 57 In February 2000,

before Tampa appeared on the horizon, he stated in a radio inter view with Alan Jones,

and in response to complaints about the cost of ill egal immigrants, that “We are doing

our level best to avoid the need to pay all that mo ney on illegal immigrants … I don’t

want illegal immigrants coming to this country. I’ ve tried my level best as Prime

Minister to tighten the law”. 58 When he defended his actions in the 2001 election in the

context of border protection and asylum seekers, Ho ward later said, “I don’t think it is a

base instinct to want to decide how people want to come to this country … it is … if you

seek to exclude people on the basis of their race a nd we are not seeking to do that”. 59

While no-one can deny that the Tampa and 11 September impacted upon the

campaign, Carol Johnson points out that an analysis of the ideological content of policies

shows noticeable links between the 2001 campaign and the previous ones in 1996 and


The Member for Hotham during the debate on immigration on 8 May, 1984, shouted to the Opposition benches: “I have had enough of this racist debating. You ar e racist bastards!”. HR, p.1994. Bob Hawke later stated that he did not accuse Howard of being a racist, bu t added, “I make the more serious charge … of cynical opportunism, in a cynical grab for votes”. HR, H ansard, 25 August, 1988, p.402. 55

Howard, John, HR, Hansard, 23 August, 1984, p.278. 56 Howard, John, Address at the Federal Liberal Party Campaig n launch, Sydney, 28 October, 2001. 57

See John Howard, HR, Hansard, 25 August, 1988, p. 405. 58 Howard, John, interview with Alan Jones, Radio 2UE, 2 February, 2000. 59

Howard, John, quoted in Mike Steketee, “The comeback king perfects his backswing”, Weekend Australia, January 26-27, 2002.


1998. 60 Tampa provided Howard with an opportunity to restate his belief in a

government’s right to say who may, and may not, enter a country. Given health,

quarantine and terrorist considerations, this may b e interpreted as a government

responsibility, although one hopes implemented with efficiency and compassion. What

Howard rejects is that his immigration policies and citizenship requirements are based on

race, or are opportunistic or poll-driven, although he has found it difficult, if not

impossible, to shed the criticism. His post- Tampa actions and the harsh expositions of

the right of nations to welcome, or reject arrivals to Australia, have consolidated the

perception of racism, but they fit a pattern. Foll owing his now-famous 1988 public

statements about the perceived wisdom in slowing down the rate of Asian immigration to

comfortable and acceptable levels within the community, Bob Hawke challenged Howard

to revert to the bipartisan approach of the raciall y non-discriminatory immigration

policies that Australia had enjoyed. Temporarily i gnoring the White Australian policy,

Hawke praised Australia’s “great and rare distincti on” of rejecting race as a factor in

immigration policy. 61 In his spirited response, and although he was lat er (pre-1996

election) to apologise to the Asian community, Howard categorically denied that race

played any part in his comments. In support of his argument, he quoted from an editorial

in The Australian , which agreed that it “must be the role of the ele cted government … to

make the final and absolute decisions on who will o r will not be granted entry to

Australia on a temporary or permanent basis”. 62 Armed with this editorial ammunition,

but despite the dismay of many in the community and most of his parliamentary

colleagues, Howard refused to retract his comments. In fact, he repeated them in

parliament for the sake of clarity:

I do … think that the pace of change brought about by the migrant intake is an

issue that any government has got to keep in mind a nd from time to time we’ve

got to take account of the community’s capacity to absorb it … I don’t primarily


Johnson, Carol, “The 2001 election campaign: The ideological context”, 2001. The Centenary Election, ed. John Warhurst and Marian Simms, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2002, p.33. 61

Hawke, Bob, Hansard, 25 August, 1988, p.402. 62 Howard, John, HR, Hansard, 25 August, 1988, p.405.


see it as a vote winning exercise. I primarily see it as something that is important

to the national unity of Australia and to our sense of identity as Australians. 63


I do think it is legitimate for any government to w orry about the capacity of the

community to absorb change and there is some concern about the pace of change

involved in the present level of Asian migration. I think any government is

entitled to take that into account and it ought not to be accused of being racist. 64

As he said then, in Opposition, and put into action later in government, he would never

“abandon the sovereign right of this country to dec ide who will be a permanent citizen of

this nation”. 65 I suggest that these early statements are not so different in context and

content from the later “We will determine … “ mantra of 2001 and beyond.

Another mainstay of John Howard’s policies has been his championing of the

traditional family unit, and the pivotal role of mo thers. Howard is, according to Brian

Loughnane, a “man who believes our families are at the heart of our society … and

behaves in his personal life as if this were so”. 66 Oddly, considering the 1970s were the

hey-day of women’s liberation, and the establishmen t of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in

Canberra, as well as greater demands by minority gr oups for rights and recognition (the

erection of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside Par liament House, for example), there is

scant reference to families in John Howard’s maiden speech ‐ or, indeed, feminism,

refugees, immigration or Aborigines. He does, however, strenuously object to families

being denied the “freedom of choice and opportunity ” in relation to the Labor

government’s initiatives in taxation and education expenses. By contrast, the family

features predominantly in Future Directions. In that document, it is eulogised as the


Ibid. 64 Ibid. 65

Ibid. 66 Loughnane, Brian, op cit.


fundamental unit of society …. the most effective m eans for the care and

development of children, and a source of personal h appiness and social support …

prime source of individual security … the basis for self discipline, personal

morality and mutual assistance”. 67 .

In an interview in 1966, one month before he became prime minister, Howard was

quizzed on comments he made in 1985 concerning policies that were clearly biased

towards “traditional” families. In his response, h e confirmed the Coalition objective of

removing the “existing bias against families where one parent elects to be at home full

time to care for children”. And, sounding exaspera ted, added, “that’s the policy

statement, and I’m not really going to start playin g word games about things I said ten

months, or 20 years, or ten years ago”. 68 However, if you do play with words on a

comparative basis, one sees the reprise in, say, th e 2001 policy document which states

that “Happy and healthy families are the best way t o ensure that children get the right

start”, with the government offering support for “f amilies who choose to have a parent

stay at home to look after young children”. 69

While Howard’s emphasis on supporting and maintaining the traditional family

unit has not substantially altered, merely the bene fits offered to it, it was impossible, even

for a socially conservative Leader of the Oppositio n in the 1980s, to ignore the winds of

feminist change. While he substantially agreed wit h Hawke’s National Agenda for

Women in 1985, Australia’s contribution to the Unit ed Nations Decade for Women, and

the “desirable goal of effective equality of status of women”, 70 Howard saw this being

achieved through choice, greater family and taxatio n benefits, and, of course, industrial

relations reform. In his response to the prime min ister’s statement, he reminded the

Chamber that it was the previous Fraser government ‐ of which he was a Minister ‐ that

introduced family allowances, a “major social refor m” of which he, Howard, was

“infinitely proud”, and the “significant liberalisa tion and improvement in the value of the


Future Directions. p.15. 68 Howard, John, interview with Liz Jackson, op cit. 69

“The Howard Government. Putting Australia’s Interests Fi rst. Election 2001. Our Future Action Plan. Stronger Families & Communities”, p.3. 70 Howard, John, HR, Hansard, 28 November, 1985, p.3906.


dependent spouse rebate”. Before long, however, he returned to his key themes, and fits

the subject ‐ equality of women ‐ within the contex t of the familiar concept of “choice”.

Choice was, he said,

the central core of our philosophy ….Increasingly w omen wish to combine the

responsibility of parenthood with careers. The Lib eral Party … is facilitating

choice …. It is not for a government to impose a st ereotype of behaviour. It is for

governments to facilitate choice. That ideal of ch oice lies at the heart of every

Liberal policy. 71

What the Coalition policy offered, of course, was a greater choice or incentive for women

to remain at home with families. In the same speec h, he returns to another pet theme:

freeing up the inflexible and rigid labour market s ystem. This would, by default, help

women, because

if we did have a more flexible industrial relations system that did not impose

penalties on individual enterprises, that made agre ements to stagger their working

hours … there would be a lot more part time working opportunities available to

women. 72

It is interesting to note that, as far back as 197 5 John Howard saw women in

relation to family/children, and the concept of cho ice as an adjunct to industrial relations

flexibility and economics. When the Labor government introduced the Family Law Bill,

Howard raised an objection on the costs involved in setting up a separate Family Court.

At a time of rising inflation, caused, according to the Coalition, by a socialist, profligate

and fiscally delinquent government, Howard lost no opportunity to criticise what he saw

as further unrestrained and reckless spending. How ard thought that it was






extraordinary that a proposal should be made for th e establishment of an

elaborate, expensive structure which will undoubted ly cost a large amount of

money … On that argument alone the establishment of such a court is barely

justifiable. 73

In the end, the Liberal Party supported the legisla tion. Malcolm Fraser sought to have

included an amendment that acknowledged the traditional role of women who “believe

that looking after children is an honourable vocati on”. 74 Howard supported the

amendment, but wanted to add the word, “choice”, for as he said,

what ideally speaking we ought to achieve is a situ ation where, with proper

regard to the interests of children , [my emphasis] women are in a position to

exercise a choice as to whether they should fulfil a full-time wife and mother role

or only a part-time one. 75

These were arguments that John Howard put forward in 1975 and 1985. Moving forward

to 2001, Howard gave a speech to the Women’s Action Alliance, where the family’s role

of providing care and development had become not only the “most important group unit

in our society”, but also represented the “best soc ial welfare system that mankind has

ever devised”. 76 Despite statistics that indicated that the seams of the traditional, gender-role families were becoming somewhat frayed in the face of increasingly diverse family

units, Howard in 2004 (successfully) introduced int o parliament an amendment to the

Marriage Amendment Act to clarify that the legal status of marriage was re cognised as

existing only between a man and a woman.

This family, as John Howard constantly reminds us, is the heart of the Australian

nation, its soul and caretaker. Yet, in articulati ng what has shaped Australia’s history and


Ibid., 19 May, 1975, pp.2448-9. 74 Fraser, Malcolm, HR, Hansard, 20 May, 1975, pp.2501-2. 75

Howard, John, HR, Hansard, 20 May, 1975, p.2502. In the event, the Family Law Bill 1974 passed through the House on 21 May, 1975, without Division, by 60 votes to 59 ( (p.2602). 76 John Howard, Address to Women’s Action Alliance, 25 th Anniversary Dinner, Melbourne, 12 October, 2000.


its so-called identity, he, more than any other pri me minister, has invoked the ghosts of

Anzac and the Digger to create and consolidate an i mage of what we are to ourselves, and

the rest of the world. Whatever the confidence or pride (or any other emotion) a nation

may derive from the spirit of a brave, but failed w ar in another country, in another

century, Anzac resonates strongly and personally wi th Howard. The senior Howard

father and grandfather both served in the two World Wars, 77 and indeed, on the same

battlefield. It is understandable, therefore, that he would seek to superimpose his own

admiration for the Anzacs, representing as it does for him the “greatest impact on the

Australian psyche”, standing as a “metaphor for muc h of the Australian character”. 78 For

Howard, as James Curran writes, the Anzac experience of Gallipoli and Northern France

had forever carved in stone the virtues and values of the Australian self-image. 79

Whatever the defects in the argument that the Austr alian community is defined by the

Anzac experience ‐ migrants who are unable to share this legacy, or pacifists, for

example ‐ this is a deeply personal but imperative aspect of history that he wishes, as

leader, to tell the nation.

In his Prime Minister’s Lecture in 1997, John Howar d said, “Each of the 25 Prime

Ministers of Australia has brought his own value sy stem to the job”, 80 and, by extension,

to government and the nation. Howard has consciously done this, but, in particular, has

set out to correct what he saw as the erroneous ver sion of Australian history and identity

created by his predecessor, Paul Keating. Howard’s ambition was to put the country to

economic and social rights the “Australian way”, sp ecifically through an “Australian

brand of Liberalism”, 81 and by adopting an “Australian multiculturalism”. 82 In this, one

sees a shadow of the maiden speech wish to preserve “one’s own particular part of the

world”, mindful of the danger of the dissipation of the traditional Australian way of life.


Cockburn, Milton, op cit. 78 Curran, James, The Power of Speech. Australian Prime Ministers Defining the National Image, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2004, p.243. 79

Ibid. 80 Howard, John, The Inaugural Prime Minister’s on Prime Ministers Lecture, Old Parliament House, 3 September, 1997. 81

Howard, John, Address to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. Australia’s Long Term Challenges, Melbourne, 25 February, 2004. 82 Quoted in Paul Kelly, 100 Years, op cit., p.251.


Howard had clearly not forgotten, or abandoned thos e views. As he told journalists in


I set out to turn back some of the cultural inferio rity that I felt Australians were

starting to drift into. I thought we shrugged off a lot of that years ago, but then we

went through that period of navel gazing, about whe ther we were Asian, European

or whatever. I certainly set out to change that”. 83

This was repeated three years later:

We’re not an Asian nation. We are a modern Australian nation, in many ways a

projection of Western civilisation in our part of t he world but with a real

difference …. we should stop fretting about how we precisely define ourselves.

We shouldn’t waste time with the sort of endless na tional navel gazing about

which definition best fits us”. 84

As well as containing utter conviction, it containe d a political strategy of defining and

reshaping the Australian identity in order to wrest from Keating his version of history.

In 1995, in strident, election campaign terms, Howa rd accused the Keating government

of dividing Australians

in the hope of short-term political advantage to it self, rather than to unite

Australians in a common cause. This is highlighted in its attempts to distort

Australian history, to demean the values of previou s generations and to

manipulate Australian nationalism …” 85

Being Australian ‐ the Liberal way ‐ was a main fea ture in Future Directions. Its

accompanying jingle to Future Directions, with its gender-specific title of “Son, You’re


Howard, John, in Malcolm Schmidtke and Gay Alcorn, op cit. 84 Howard, John, interview with Paul Kelly, 100 Year, op cit., p.250. 85

Howard, John, The Australia I Believe In. The Values, Directions and Pol icy Priorities of a Coalition Government Outlined in 1995 , p.14. .


Australian”, (“that’s good enough for me”), contain s musical advice about the dangers of

consorting with fancy dancers, silver tongues and c hancers, and, instead, exhorts listeners

to teach our “sons and daughters/ What it means to be a true Australian”. 86 Unlike the

policy document with the stereotypical family and p icket-fence which has been

rediscovered many years after its publication, the jingle was (thankfully) destined for

musical oblivion. Yet, it did open a debate that w as clearly of importance to John

Howard personally. In his terms, therefore, and be yond the Anzac myth, how exactly

was an Australian defined? As a clue, Howard describe d himself as possessing

quintessential Australian values:

I’m direct, I’m unpretentious and I’m pretty dogged and I hope I’ve got a capacity

to laugh at myself and not take myself too seriousl y … I’d like to be seen as an

average Australian bloke … I can’t think of a noble r description of anybody than

to be called an average Australian bloke. 87

A crucial factor for Australians and their unique i dentity, according to Howard, is in

remaining a cohesive, united group even in the face of diverse ethnic influences. This is

an enduring strength, as he said in his National Pr ess Club address this year, but, at the

same time, there is an implicit requirement of thos e who come to Australia to integrate

within that group. Diversity, for example, cannot be at the expense of the “common

values that bind us together as one people”. 88 Shared and common Australian values are

the key, for, as he stresses, in what may be interp reted as a reprise of the denial of

difference remarked upon by Henderson,

I don’t think Australians want tribalism. They wan t us all to be Australians. And

that should be the dominant driving force of all po st-settlement policies that apply

after people have come to this country. And there should be a constant


Courtney, Bryce, “Son, You’re Australian”, Liberal and Natio nal Parties of Australia, 1988. 87 Howard, John, interview with Liz Jackson, op cit. 88

Howard, John, National Press Club, op cit.


exhortation of all people irrespective of their bac kground to absorb the

fundamental values of the Australian community. 89

It may explain his resistance to multiculturalism, or, at least, the insistence on an

Australian multiculturalism. In an interview with Henderson in 1989, Howard explained

his objection because

multiculturalism is in effect saying that it is imp ossible to have an Australian

ethos, that it is impossible to have a common Austr alian culture. So we have to

pretend that we are a federation of cultures and th at we’ve got a bit from every

part of the world. I think that is hopeless. 90

When the same question was put to him in 1995, there was recognition of the inevitability

of diversity, but also a rider of unity over divers ity:

If multiculturalism means that there should be resp ect for everybody’s own

individual cultural identity then I’m totally suppo rtive. If it means that you’re sort

of promoting the diversity ahead of the unity then I put a couple of question

marks over it. 91

Unity takes precedence over diversity at all times. In what became an oft-repeated

phrase, in Future Directions, John Howard writes: “Whatever the differences that divide

us, the things that unite us as Australians are muc h greater and more enduring. That is

what One Australia is all about”. 92 It reappears in the 1995 Headland speeches as th e

“things which unite us as Australians are infinitel y greater and more enduring than the

things which divide us”, 93 and again in 2001 at the Commemoration of Federation

Ceremony, when he says that the day “unites all of us, and reminds us of that enduring

truth that the things that unite us as Australians are always more important and more


Howard, John, press conference, Phillip Street, Sydney, 12 December, 2005. 90 Henderson, Gerard, A Howard Government? Op cit., p.27. 91

Ibid. 92 Future Directions, p.13. 93

Howard, John, Headland Speech, “The Role of Government”, Sydney, 6 June, 1995.


substantial than the things that might from time to time divide us”. 94 In a post 9/11,

terrorist, extremist Islamist world, torn by civil wars and massive movements of refugees,

the onus of cohesion and managing diversity is a da unting task for any leader, but

Howard has traced the parameters within which he will operate.

Howard’s strategy has been to remain fixed on his goals, articulate his policies

and beliefs, and remain, as the political jargon ha s it, “on message”. It is clearly a

conflation of innate conviction and defined politic al strategy. As Brian Loughnane said

in his Washington speech covering Howard’s ten years of achievement for Australia,

“[Howard] has been remarkably consistent in stating his beliefs and views, he has not

attempted to change to suit prevailing currents or to buy short term popularity. He has

made the effort to explain and argue his case and t o bring the community with him.” 95

Not everyone agrees with that sentiment. Graham Richardson, long-serving and retired

ALP stalwart argues that Howard

did not rise to his position of complete dominance because he articulated some

clear pictures of where the Liberal Party had come from, where it is now or where

he hopes to take it. If some intrepid pollster wer e to walk down the main street of

any suburb … he or she would be battling to find an yone who could remember

anything Howard might have said about the Liberal Party’s continuing themes or

even what he has said about what it is to be Austra lia. 96

A glance at the ALP website indicates that many agr ee with this assessment, and many

contemporary publications and essays are extremely critical of Howard and his political

contribution. Others point out Howard’s policy U-t urns. 97 Geoffrey Barker, in a

Financial Review article entitled, “U-turns kink the straight and na rrow”, accused


Howard, John, Address at the Commemoration of Federation Ceremony, Centennial Park, Sydney, 1 January, 2001. 95 Loughnane, Brian, op cit. 96

Richardson, Graham, correspondence in response to Judith Br ett’s essay, “Relaxed and Comfortable” [contained in Quarterly Essay, Issue 19, 2006], Quarterly Essay, Issue 20, 2006, p.70. , 97

See, for example, Don Watson, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. A portrait of Paul Kea ting PM, Knopf, Milsons Point, 2002, p.623. Watson cites the GST, Asian immigration, Medicare, the Native Title Act and Land Fund.


Howard of being a “policy straw man” prior to the 2 001 election. “The Government’s

policy reversals”, he wrote, “on petrol excise, GST reporting requirements and trusts

might, of course, restore the Coalition’s political fortunes and ensure its victory in the

federal election. If so, they will be declared tri umphs for Howard’s pragmatism”. 98 The

combination of pragmatism, Tampa, and policy meant that Howard survived the 2001

election, and three years later won a fourth term o f office, with the added bonus of

control of the Senate. Allowing for obvious partis anship, therefore, Richardson is wide

of the mark in his claims of Howard’s irrelevancy, but correct in his assertion of

Howard’s “complete dominance” today of the Australian political landscape. The times

have suited him, as he once predicted, 99 there has been some luck, good timing, an ability

to grasp opportunities when presented, and, of cour se, a degree of failure of Opposition.

On the other hand, the sweep of reform that has acc ompanied the tenure of John Howard

in office, suggests that he came to the Lodge and K irribilli House with a comprehensive,

and in some respects, non-negotiable, agenda. A d ecade on, they are, by and large, in


After ten years, it is unlikely that we have seen an end to the Howard leadership

or his reform agenda. There are two areas that may represent unfinished business: health

and non-compulsory voting. Universal health coverage ‐ Medibank and Medicare ‐ has

always been a vexed question for the Liberal Party, although it does not resile from its

necessity. However, it has found tinkering with it an irresistible policy impulse. One of

the first fiscal policy statements announced by the new Fraser government in 1977 related

to modifications to the “very expensive” Medibank, in line with the “concepts of

choice”. 100 “Australia’s health care system”, it was later sa id in Future Directions, “is in

a shambles”, 101 the reason being that self-provision had been disc ouraged, and correcting

the situation called for a “more competitive system … as in any free market” 102 and

reducing the government role. There have been fur ther amendments over the decades,


Barker, Geoffrey, “U-turns kink the straight and narrow”, Australian Financial Review, 5 March, 2001. 99 See Howard’s reference in Hansard, 12 April, 1989, to the “interview I gave in Washington in 1986 to Anne Summers of the Australian Financial Review [and which] subsequently appeared under the heading, “Times Will Suit Me” ‐ Howard’ (p.1444). 100

Lynch, Phillip, House of Representatives, Hansard, “Fiscal Po licy Decisions”, 20 May, 1976, p.2341. 101 Future Directions, p.19. 102

Ibid., p.20.


with greater incentive for private health care. Wh at is interesting, however, is a recent

Australian report that the government is expected to spend “te ns of millions of dollars on

a publicity blitz about a planned overhaul of the M edicare public system …. While exact

advertising figures are not yet known… [but said to rival the GST] … [it] suggests the

federal Government will turn the reform blowtorch o n the public health system this year

as it did with industrial relations last year and t he introduction of the GST before that”. 103

The recent success of the abolition of compulsory s tudent union fees may revive

another old chestnut: non-compulsory voting. As f ar back as 1964, when an executive of

the Liberal Party Federal Council, John Howard was the sole member to vote in favour of

non-compulsory voting, raising, apparently, a few “ disapproving eyebrow[s] at the

time”. 104 Almost as soon as he had arrived in parliament h ouse in 1974, he bluntly

announced that he had “never believed in compulsory voting”, 105 and in 2005 did not rule

out the possibility of doing something about it. T here is a distinct whiff of GST déjà vu

when Howard says, in relation to the introduction o f non-compulsory voting legislation,

that he could “never say something will never be on the Government’s agenda”. 106

On the tenth anniversary as Prime Minister, John Ho ward has said that we should

not “ever be frightened of passionate debate about issues. It shows a nation alive to

issues of principle and issues of morality”. 107 The debate that his tenure as prime

minister has generated, and the policies that were, and are, dear to his heart will

ultimately be judged by history and those who have either profited or suffered through

those policies. One thing is certain: given John Howard’s past successes over a decade

in government, there is no doubt there will be furt her tweaking at the edges, fine-tuning,

if not radical overhauls, to complete his “big pict ure”. If history informs the present, we

cannot say we were not warned.

103 Sinclair, Lara, “Ad blitz to sell Medicare overhaul”, Australian, Media Section, 9 February, 2006. 104 Howard, John, Interview with Alexandra Kirk, ABC Radio, PM, 4 October, 2005. 105

Howard, John, HR, Hansard, 25 November, 1974, p.3977. 106 Howard, John, interview with Alexandra Kirk, ibid.. 107

Howard, John, interview with Neil Mitchell, Radio 3AW, Melbourne, 2 December, 2005.