For the last few days SBS has been heavily promoting Liberal Rule: The Politics that Changed Australia, a weighty three-hour retrospective on the Howard era of Government. This was always threatening to be compulsory viewing not only because of the sociological claim in the subtitle but also because many of the biggest Liberal politicians and staffers contributed: John Howard was in it as was Fraser, Costello, Downer, Reith, Staley and Sinodinos. Here would be some good insights into the business of government.
This morning, anticipation was lifted up another notch when Gerard Henderson in the Sydney Morning Herald called the documentary “a shocker and a disgrace”. Henderson is a Howard supporter and plainly didn’t like the authors’ “layers of subtext” which he saw as code for left wing. He sportingly said the left got “free kick after free kick” and then played the man not the ball when he said Norm Abjorensen's book John Howard and the Conservative Tradition has sold fewer than 100 copies in a year.
But I’m thinking Henderson should be on the SBS marketing payroll if he isn’t already. By publicly bagging the program, he was drawing splendid attention to it. And it was a program he was in. In his SMH attack he leaves out any discussion of the layers of sub-text of his segment. This suggests the filmmakers treated him fairly. Henderson did show he was more accurate than SBS in one key respect - he got the time of the show right. SBS were sending out online ads in Crikey and elsewhere all day saying it was on “SBS One Wednesday 8.30pm”. But Henderson got the facts right in his article – It was aired at 8.30pm tonight (Tuesday).
Apart from unnecessarily losing out on audiences, the SBS mistake also undermines the fact that Liberal Rules is likely to become good history - assuming the quality does not dip in the next two episodes. As Henderson rightly criticised, it did not interview any Labor or National politicians and overcompensated with leftwing critics such as the unfortunate Abjorensen, Judith Brett and Mark Davis (whose praise appeared on the blurb of the ad with the wrong day). But so what. In three hours of television, there will be a wealth of great historical material to choose from the political interviews.
This is a necessity the filmmakers turned into a brilliant virtue. Joint filmmaker Garry Sturgess had brought his skills as a senior researcher on ABC’s Labor in Power to do a similar job on the Howard era. But Sturgess found it difficult to open old doors. He and partner Nick Torrens struggled with sibling rivalry on the public purse when they tried to gain access to ABC’s treasure chest of news archives. It was the job of ex-SBS employee Alan Sunderland to deny the request on the grounds that their “primary responsibility is to make programs for the Australian public.”
So Sturgess and Torrens stacked the program with talking heads. This is difficult to make exciting and they wasted no time showing the questions or questioners inanely nodding. Audiences had to work out what was going on from the guiding of the anonymous narrator, the taut editing of the film, and the surprisingly candid answers themselves.
Howard and the other Liberals agreed to take part because they knew this would be a film about legacy and they were keen to shape it. As the film itself says, the Liberals are all about leadership. From Menzies to Turnbull the ethos of the party is that leadership is central to its identity. Liberal philosophy changes with the winds unburdened as it is by any -ism. What was most of interest in this film was how Howard and the rest approached their decision making.
For example Costello was brutally honest about the spoils of power. He would go to meetings where there might be 15 or 16 or people. The difficulty of getting them to do something for him was that all of them there were appointed by Howard. All that is, except him. “I was the only one elected”, he said. Ever since he backed Downer for the leadership in 1993, it was clear Costello always preferred to be the message rather than the messenger.
What mattered was not who did things the best, but who announced them best. And John Howard was always better at that than Costello. Howard was more ruthlesss for starters and served a tougher apprenticeship learning for the top job. In the 1970s, he was a young and generally hopeless Treasurer. In the 1980s, he wrestled with Peacock for the right to lose to Bob Hawke. And in the early 1990s, he watched as the newer leaders Hewson and Downer were gobbled up and spat out by the “street brawler” Paul Keating. Downer resigned in 1995 as the party stared at a sixth election loss. Costello was kept as deputy but it was Howard – battle-hardened but just 56 year old – who was chosen. He came out by Costello’s side to tell the media he had been appointed “unanimous leader”. His body language suggested supreme confidence he was going to be the next Prime Minister and he crushed Keating at the election a year later.
Howard was the master of the small agenda but his inability to look up almost made him a one-term premier. In trouble in the polls, he turned to his tax agenda and decided to run hard on getting a mandate for a Goods and Services Tax. While this overturned an election promise, he got away with it because Labor though an election could not be won selling a tax. Despite the fact his victory over Beazley was narrow, it was was a turning point. Although Howard would have to reach into his bag of tricks again to find another issue to win in 2001 (Tampa), it was the GST election that cemented his place in the party’s pantheon.
After that second win, he had carte blanche to do what he wanted. Howard used the twin drivers of the mining boom and a trillion dollars worth of personal debt to get the government back in the black. He then increased public spending on favoured projects and dished out largesse in the budget much to the chagrin of the more economic rationalist Treasurer. Neither of them did much on climate change. It is this sense that Liberal frittered away their years in power that bothered Henderson about Liberal Rules.
He says the left have won the victory of ideas because unlike the Liberals, they take history seriously. Henderson took the example of Opposition frontbencher George Brandis who complained in The Spectator that that Liberals are not celebrating the 100th anniversary of the formation of the inaugural Liberal Party. “But Brandis could have arranged such a celebration himself,” Henderson said. As Malcolm Turnbull and all the others before him showed, the Liberals are not about ideas, they are about actions.