THERE WERE NEVER IN THE WORLD TWO OPINIONS ALIKE

The Honourable John Howard OM AC.
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The Honourable John Howard OM AC.

In an office overlooking Sydney Harbour, William Dawes & Natarsha Terreiro (Vice-President, UNSW Freedom Club) sat down for a candid hour-long interview with Australia’s most successful Prime Minister, the Honourable John Howard OM AC.
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The Honourable John Howard OM AC.

Waiting in the foyer of Mr Howard’s offices, we occupied ourselves by admiring a painting of a grand sailing ship. At this stage we were too nervous to walk across the room to determine if it might be the HMS Endeavor or one of the vessels from the First Fleet. Something told us that it could have been either one. As we sat there, Mr Howard’s voice emanated from another room. Hearing his voice –clear, strong yet slightly removed – was instantly reminiscent of our childhood. That was an era when Prime Minister Howard’s voice constituted much of the ambient noise in Australian households.

As he ushered us into his office, Mr Howard was quick to dispel our initially deferential approach by kindly offering us tea. He insisted that we needn’t be anxious, and the interview soon became relaxed and conversational.

Perhaps predictably, we began by discussing the effect of inspirational party leaders. Whilst many readers might identify as members of ‘the Howard Generation’, Howard himself belongs to a generation inspired by Sir Robert Menzies. Currently working on a book on Menzies, Mr Howard is clearly interested in looking to our past to identify what makes the right side of politics tick.

Mr Howard was adamant that any characterisation of Menzies as a “small l” liberal, and himself as a “large L” liberal, is absurd. “It’s a nonsensical attempt to divide the Liberal tradition,” he told us. “Words like ‘small l’ and ‘large L’ liberal were just not used during the Menzies period. To suggest that Menzies and I had different views on issues that might define people as ‘small’ or ‘large L’ liberals is also nonsensical; he was a person of his age, as I was, and everybody is conditioned by the circumstances they face.”

This necessarily variable approach to contemporary concerns goes to the heart of centre right forces such as the Liberal Party of Australia. Mr Howard’s practical approach was articulated by Menzies himself, who sought to ensure the malleable character of the Party from the beginning. In his memoirs, Menzies states that “there was to be nothing doctrinaire about our policies. If I were to become the leader of a great non­Socialist party, I must look at everything in a practical way.”

As an illustration of the superficial and simplistic nature of such distinctions as ‘small l’ and ‘large L’, Mr Howard pointed to Menzies’ banning of the Communist Party. “[Menzies] was opposed in 1951 by people who today would be described as ‘small l’ liberals because they thought banning the Communist Party was a violation of liberal principle.

“It was a divisive issue; my own parents probably for the first time in their lives voted differently on that referendum…it was an illustration of just how that issue divided people. But if you’re using a slide rule of ‘small l’ Liberalism, well, people who use those slide rules wouldn’t have put Menzies on the ‘small l’ liberal side on that issue.”

Mr Howard identified elements of continuity between himself and Menzies, pointing us to what “you might loosely call conservative social values”.

“We both believed in preserving existing institutions, unless they were demonstrated no longer to work for the benefit of mankind or the benefit of Australians.

“We were both strong believers in working closely with our proven allies; we were both people who believed very strongly in free enterprise and where appropriate, the curtailment of the role of the state; we both believed very much in individual liberty and the importance of the individual as opposed to the collective. Now they were general philosophical views that are common to Liberals.”

Here, Mr Howard put down his tea, and continued thoughtfully. “The important thing to remember about the Liberal Party in Australia is that it is the custodian of both the classical Liberal tradition which owes so much to people like Edmund Burke and Mill, but it’s also…the custodian of the conservative tradition.”

The Liberal Party of Australia has always exhibited this peculiar syncretism. Clearly, Mr Howard is very conscious of it

“As a centre right party, that’s its tradition… It’s very important to remember that.”

LEADERSHIP

When it comes to stable leadership, the Howard years stand out as an exemplar. It did not help the Rudd, Gillard and Rudd II governments that the Howard years were fresh in the memory of voters, offering a clear juxtaposition to Labor’s chaos and division. However difficult this seemed to the Australian Labor Party, Mr Howard was able to point to a few simple principles with which to lead “a proper, orthodox Westminster Cabinet government.”

“[When I was Prime Minister] nobody could ever say that policies were presented as fait accomplis; that was the key to it,” Howard told us. “If you involve everybody who’s entitled to be involved in the decision-making process, including the party room, then that acts as moral suasion on members of Parliament. They find it much harder to kick against the traces…

“If you subject yourself to the discipline of the collective, you will find you not only have more authority but you have a lot more unity. That was the key, in my opinion. I treated the Cabinet process and the party room process with great respect, and they were the two ingredients.”

Mr Howard detailed the process by which he engaged with Cabinet and the Parliament in the decision to commit Australia to the Iraq War, as an example.

“The decision to go into Iraq, which is very controversial and very unpopular, and very difficult…,was the subject of detailed, extensive discussion in the National Security Committee of Cabinet; And then when the final decision was made in March to commit our forces to armed combat, I took that to the full Cabinet. I didn’t expect they were going to reverse it but I nonetheless went around the table and invited everybody to have a say.”

“Then we of course presented a resolution to Parliament. We didn’t have to because it was an executive decision to go war, but it acted as a respectful and important symbol.”

On a more general level, Mr Howard identified two principles which are essential for leadership in any context: a clear set of beliefs and a good ear. “The most important thing about leadership is to give people a clear idea of what you believe in. If you don’t have beliefs then you can’t succeed, in my judgment.” He smiled as he continued, “I regard it as a compliment if people said, “I can’t stand him but I do know what he believes in.”

“You’ve also got to have a capacity to listen. Politicians never succeed if they’re poor listeners…The great bulk of people who engage on a one-on-one basis with a Member of Parliament are really taking advantage of the opportunity to get something off their chest. And if they feel that the Member of Parliament has listened to them then they will feel that they’ve achieved what they’ve set out to do.”

Mr Howard took another sip from his cup of tea as the conversation turned to the legacy of his government. The crucial elements of his Government’s legacy are, Howard says, “the balance that we struck between economic management and national security, and the balance we struck in foreign affairs between what I used to call our ‘history’ and our ‘geography’”.

“The principal reason why Australia has not been as badly affected by the Global Financial Crisis [as other countries] is the state of the economy that we left behind plus our resource trade with China.” Howard said. He noted that Rudd wore Australia’s AAA credit rating as a badge of honour and a vindication of his personal efforts. “Yes, it came back when Peter Costello was Treasurer and I was Prime Minister,” Howard quipped, “And it disappeared when Keating was Treasurer and Hawke was Prime Minister.”

He also drew attention to Rudd’s claim “that he’d really created the G20”. Mr Howard pointed out, bluntly, that “he’d done nothing of the kind.”

“Now it’s very, very important to know what my government did and defend the legacy of my government, certainly in areas of economic management and economic reform.” Mr Howard “left behind a pile of money in the bank, which Mr Rudd busily set about spending.”

Howard then delved further into Australia’s past to highlight other incredibly positive reforms which the Liberal Party can draw on as part of its legacy. He highlighted Menzies’ commitment to provide government funding to Catholic schools. Mr Howard said that in many ways, opposition to such funding at the time “was a relic of the old sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants in Australia”. Menzies’ decision was an important step towards ending this divide. Even in 2004 an underlying distaste for independent and Catholic schools was given voice when the Latham Opposition sought to impose a Hit List of 67 private schools. Howard explained the reasoning behind his defence of Catholic and independent schools in the face of the provocative policy.

“I had an enormous respect for the way in which Catholics in Australia carried on their independent system for 100 years without any financial help.” Howard told us. “I don’t know how they did it, but they did. And I thought it was a matter of justice in the end that they should get government help. Now that argument has been settled, but there were still a lot of people around who carry resentment towards the independent schools.”

“My fundamental principle is freedom of choice, and if people want their children educated in the environment of a school attached to a church or a religious faith, then they have a perfect right to exercise their choice and to expect some assistance from the taxpayer in doing it.

When it comes to the abolishment of the White Australia Policy… “I keep reading in the paper that Whitlam did that; the abolition of the White Australia policy occurred courtesy of Harold Holt, not Gough Whitlam.”

Howard’s unapologetic articulation of the LPA’s legacy was inspiring.

It would be safe to say that since the 2013 election, Liberals have been experiencing an understandable morale high. Nonetheless, Howard’s directive to ‘know’ what he did, what Menzies did and what the Party has done, is an important weapon when combatting the false narratives constructed by the Left.

MINIMAL GOVERNMENT

We then asked how the Howard Generation should go about selling minimal government when the incentives to ‘spend big’ seem so enticing in the short-term to a lot of people. Howard noted the dependency which develops as a consequence of government hand­outs.

“A society that encourages people to achieve their best is more likely to be a happy, fulfilled society,” Howard said simply. “And the way in which you do that is to provide an incentive for people to do it. You actually leave it to the individual, and the natural instinct of people is to have a go at achieving what they think their talents will allow them to achieve.”

Additionally, he pointed to the comparative performance of organisations such as the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas and Telstra, as support for the argument in favour of minimal government. Howard recalled his support for privatisation when it became a topic of debate in Australia in the 1980’s. Mr Howard chuckled knowingly and noted “the track record of governments trying to do things commercially is very bad.”

DEFINITIONS

We were interested to know what Mr Howard considered the most important aspect of debate in the public sphere. The eponym himself had some advice for anyone competing in the John Howard Debating Cup, as well as any form of debate, either amongst like­minded, or with the Left.

“Winning the debate about definition is very important. It’s one of the first things I was taught when I was at school. In a formal debate, the opening speaker for the affirmative is the government; defines the debate, defines the topic. Unless that definition is challenged… it influences the whole debate.”

“Now I often think about this when I hear public arguments…I’ve listened to the debate about same­sex marriage and the people in favour of it, and I’m not in favour of it, but the people who are in favour of it say, “Oh, it’s marriage equality.”

Mr Howard paused, and considered his approach. “It’s…got nothing to do with ‘marriage equality’. Marriage equality is about how a husband and wife within a marriage treat each other…To most people that’s marriage equality. But it’s a catch cry sort of argument. It’s… really got nothing in my view to do with discrimination…”

“My point is that… people who are defending the status quo on this issue, if…they concede that the debate is about equality then it gives the other side of the argument a powerful weapon.”

EDUCATION

We then turned our attention to a concern which has always preoccupied Howard: the appreciation (or lack thereof) of Australian history, particularly the formative years of the federation, in the education curriculum.

“I think the current…history curriculum is quite inadequate; It’s not just… neglected British history and the Judeo-Christian tradition of this country that I’ve complained about publicly; but it also doesn’t sufficiently mandate the study of the Federation achievement.

“The Federation achievement in Australia was extraordinary. Our Federation doesn’t, on occasion… function all that well, but it functions a lot better than other federations; better than the American or Canadian or Indian…we got a lot of things right at the time of Federation, and it was voted upon.”

Mr Howard noted that women had a better role in our democracy at an earlier time than in virtually any other country in the world. Although there is a lot to be proud of, I lamented to Mr Howard that many people are at best embarrassed or at worst, invariably apologetic for our history. Can Australia really function and grow with that kind of attitude?

“No, no, it can’t, and so much of the doctrinaire multiculturalism practiced by the cultural dieticians has been to the effect that we should be a bit embarrassed about our white Anglo Celtic past. Now it had flaws and mistakes like any nation; we’re not perfect. We didn’t show appropriate sensitivity towards indigenous people for a long time….Attitudes on that have changed and that’s a good thing. But the idea that Australia’s history has been one of racism, white triumphalism and so forth is just mistaken.”

Mr Howard summarised this view in a handy aphorism.

“After all, why do people want to come to Australia? They want to come to Australia because of who we are, not because of who we ought to be.”

Asked how we might best counter this lacklustre approach to Australian History, Mr Howard was quick to respond.

“You’ve got to get onto the backs of State governments. The biggest problem in education in Australia is not money; the biggest problem is what is taught and how it’s taught. States write the curriculum, and I haven’t seen a lot of evidence to date that they’re very worked up about the curriculum even here in New South Wales.”

The campaign for equal rights by minorities in the 20th century is lauded non sine causa, sed sine fine. This emphasis is now perpetuated in the National Curriculum. An important question, rarely considered, is why did white, Anglophone men already expect these rights? Freedom of association, religion and speech should never be taken for granted are not recent initiatives. Equality before the law is not a novel development. As long as we only start our education halfway through the story, we will be tempted to think that these fundamental Western rights and notions of equality were invented by activists in the 1960’s.

CONCLUSION

Mr Howard implored us to know what his government did and what we, as Liberals, stand for. Luckily for us, John Howard has always been clear, consistent and unambiguous as to what he considers the most important aspects of his legacy. Mr Howard noted that conversely it was very difficult to say “Kevin Rudd believes in the following five things…”

Readers should consider themselves inheritors of a centre right tradition. Our greatest asset is the way in which our past leaders, particularly Howard, have clearly articulated their beliefs and vision.

“I would like people to remember that when we finished as a government, Australia was a stronger, prouder, more prosperous country than what it had been when we started…I’d like them to remember the strength of the economy, I’d like them to remember that in the month after I left office unemployment dipped down to 3.9%, I’d like them to remember our gun control laws… a case of proper government intervention to protect people…I’d certainly like them to remember the major economic reforms, the difficult things like waterfront reform, taxation reform, privatisation. But I’d also like them to remember us as a government… that delivered a great human dividend out of our economic management.”

We can see in this legacy a catalogue of reforms which could only be considered coherent under a Liberal government. What is amazing about the Liberal Party, is that it can have a past leader like Menzies who “was a strong believer in the old industrial relations order” with “very close personal relations with Albert Monk who ran the ACTU” as well as leaders like John Howard who evidently had “a more radical approach to industrial relations”. For the same reason, we can now have a Liberal leader, in Tony Abbott, advocating a very generous paid parental leave scheme. This is possible, because as Howard said, we understand that every Liberal leader “is conditioned by the circumstances they face.”

We should be proud of a legacy unique for its continuity. The same coherence is not there for people in the Australian Labor Party. Surely, they can be nothing but confused as to what their party stands for and what elements of its legacy they should perpetuate.

The Australian Labor Party maintains watered-down socialist sentiments, confused by Keating’s economic rationalism in the 1990s and finally trivialised by its attempt at Obama­esque, pseudo-presidential pretensions under Rudd.

The Liberal Party of Australia, however, because it has never been ‘doctrinaire’ but rather always practical in its approach to contemporary concerns, offers a clear direction for the Howard Generation.

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