John Howard has hit back at claims he is too old for the job of Australian Prime Minister. In a reminder of the 1984 Reagan-Mondale presidential race, the 67-year-old told Channel Nine this morning "I could probably borrow that famous line of Ronald Reagan: 'If you don't talk about my age I won't talk about your inexperience." Howard made the barb (incorrectly about Jimmy Carter in 1980 not Walter Mondale in 1984) after opposition leader Kevin Rudd told him his time was up. Speaking at a Labor conference on Friday, Rudd accused Howard of being arrogant, out of touch, and not having any new ideas since the days of black-and-white television. The attacks to are likely to become increasingly personal as the 2007 election looms closer with Rudd leading in the polls while Howard looks to claim a fifth successive victory.
John Howard has been in power so long that a book can now be written about him called “The Howard Years”. Published in 2004, and edited by Melbourne academic Robert Manne, the book is a series of essays by writers who trenchantly judge the conservative populism of the Howard era and find it wanting. Manne admits in the preface that the writers are what the government would call a despised new social category, “the elites”.
Manne himself is a long-time critic of John Howard. He is the professor of politics at Melbourne’s La Trobe University and a major political player himself. He has been involved in Australia’s wars on the so-called ‘black armband’ side (those who know there have been significant massacres of Aboriginals by settlers), served on the Stolen Generations Taskforce and a former editor of the influential conservative magazine Quadrant which he took in a social democrat direction, albeit briefly.
The 2004 book describes itself as “the first reasonably systematic and broad ranging assessment of the impact of the Howard years”. Howard was then eight years and three elections in the job. Manne himself writes an overview of those years. Three writers (Mungo MacCallum, Judith Brett, and Helen Irving) tackle the enigma of “Honest John”. Mick Dodson writes about Howard and Aboriginal Australia. William Maley discusses immigration policy. John Quiggin writes about economics; Simon Marginson reflects on the universities, Ian Lowe does the environment. Finally there are two essays on foreign relations, one specifically about Indonesia by M.C. Riclefs and another about general foreign policy by Tony Kevin.
It is a heavyweight selection of essays. They are all critical of the Howard administration. Manne’s overview is a chronological dissection of the decision making process in the Howard Government. Manne notes that Howard’s Liberals have tapped in to suburban middle Australia. They have achieved this partially by good representative politicians and secondly by conspicuously rejecting the progressive agenda that had been in place since the Gough Whitlam administration of 1972 – 1975. This meant, as Manne said, saying no to multiculturalism, Aboriginal self-determination, gay rights, environmentalism, and refugee rights.
Since 1970, Australia has undergone two social revolutions which have reshaped its way of life. The first was a cultural revolution with the arrival of Indigenous land rights, the ending of the White Australia Policy and the idea of assimilation of immigrants. The second was an economic revolution with involved a floated dollar, deregulated financial system, privatised utilities and a tariff free economy. The educated left led the charge in the first revolution and the educated right led the second. But the mood on the street to both revolutions was turning sour.
No one was more committed to both revolutions than Paul Keating. As Treasurer, he brought about the economic revolution. As last Labor Prime Minister he tried to implement fully the first revolution. But in 1996 his labour base deserted him. That year the Liberal Party slogan was “For All of Us”. It was an unsubtle reminder that Keating only governed for some of us; ethnics, Aboriginals, feminists, gays.
John Howard ran that year with a “small target” strategy and won comfortably. His first year reflected this with a lack of major policy initiatives. His biggest plan was rid the waterfront of its union. It was a secret strategy to sack the maritime unionised workforce and replace them with a crew that was being recruited and trained by the army in Dubai. But the Dubai scheme was foiled when it was leaked to Labor and the union threatened an international maritime boycott. With Howard’s backing, the firm Patrick sacked its workforce anyway only to have the decision overturned by the courts.
But the defining characteristic of Howard earliest years is how he dealt with Pauline Hanson. Hanson was a Liberal candidate in 1996 who was disendorsed by the Party after she advocated the abolition of government assistance for Aborigines. She stood as an independent and won with a massive swing. She achieved instant stardom after her maiden speech to parliament which warned Australia risked “being swamped by Asians”. Hanson became a media superstar and the speech unleashed a whole unspoken argument about multi-cultural relations in Australia. Hanson claimed to have a mandate on behalf of commonsense and the forgotten “mainstream” Her new party took one vote in every four in the Queensland state election. They almost crippled Howard in his first re-election in 1998. One Nation took 8.4% of vote but Hanson herself was defeated.
In his second term, Howard put paid to the republic with his skewed referendum, discredited the “Bringing them Home” report on Aboriginal child removal and began to put in place a new policy to deal with asylum seekers. Mandatory detention had been in place since the Keating era. If their claims were rejected, asylum seekers could potential end up in permanent custody. The principle of refoulement means they could not be sent back to a war-torn country. Howard’s job was to demonise these people. They were called “queue jumpers”, “forum shoppers” and “illegals”. Howard stole a Hanson idea and created the concept of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) which would review status after three years and would not allow re-entry. Next of kin were not allowed to join them in Australia.
TPVs caused a flood of immigrants to flout the law and attempt to land in Australia. The detention camps were overflowing. A UN Working Group on Mandatory Detention visited the camps and found gross abuses of human rights. But 70% of Australians favoured this treatment. In 2001 survivors from a leaky boat called the Palapa were picked up by a Norwegian vessel and the Tampa crisis was created. While Howard’s harsh treatment of the Tampa refugees attracted international condemnation, he was supported by 95% of his own public. Howard hammered home the political advantage with his skilful manipulation of the false Children Overboard affair and the tragically real Siev X which sunk claiming 353 lives.
This policy alone would have won the 2001 election. But it was reinforced with 9/11. Howard was in Washington when the attacks occurred. Howard immediately invoked Article IV of the ANZUS treaty and pledged military support to the US. A month later he farewelled Australian troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban regime. Another month later, Howard had won a massive victory at the polls.
As the ‘war on terror’ unfolded Howard kept Australia in synch with the US position. Howard was a tireless arguer for the merits of going to war with Saddam. He criticised the UN for its “intransigence” over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. He sent in Australian troops after the US and Britain ignored the lack of a Security Council resolution and invaded anyway. Assisted by a pro-war Murdoch press, and the lack of Australian casualties Howard survived the early parts of the war with his reputation unscathed. And his vision of Australia was clear: Western values, the Anzac tradition, and a military alliance with its oldest allies, the UK and the US.