After Howard

25 Sep 2007

What will be the legacy of the Howard years, ask JAMES WALTER and PAUL STRANGIO in this extract from their new book, No, Prime Minister: Reclaiming Politics from Leaders (0), which traces the growing centralisation of power during the prime ministerships of Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard

ONE of the most familiar images of John Howard is of the prime minister on his early morning walk. The setting is usually Canberra or Sydney, but it could be any city in Australia or it could be Tokyo, New York or London: this is a man who is out in the world while most of us wrestle with coffee and cornflakes. We see him powering along, the Energizer Bunny of Australian politics, occasionally greeting passers-by, responding succinctly to questions from reporters who struggle to keep up, determinedly confronting the new day - out ahead of the pack. And for much of his reign, the performance has matched the image. Howard has a clear and explicit agenda, with nearly every policy initiative prefaced by a statement of “core” beliefs, and keeps well in front of an opposition that has struggled to say what it stands for. He succeeds through discipline and organisation, insists that practical action is linked to philosophy, and doesn’t avoid confrontation when necessary. When he cannot prevail, he will tack and temper, withdraw and regroup, but he rarely sacrifices any of his principal objectives - witness, for instance, the decade-long battle to refashion industrial relations that finally culminated in the WorkChoices legislation. Not only have critics and naysayers dropped back, exhausted or frustrated, but opposition leaders have gone into meltdown (Crean and Beazley) or frenzy (Latham), while heirs in his own party have been parried.

At some points, especially in early 2001 and in 2007, Howard’s followers have been forced to confront the abyss towards which his dominance may lead. Without him (and because of him), they have neither a leadership successor with traction nor a philosophy that is proof against future demands, since the Liberals have invested so heavily in Howard’s “values.” Nor do they have well-functioning state party divisions from which they can draw sustenance as they contemplate a political landscape in which Labor is only a federal election victory away from a clean sweep of the nation’s governments. Howard does lose the plot. He cannot generate a solution for every problem, and the ideas that seemed to serve him so long - self-reliance, a “fair go,” giving people choice, giving power “back” to individuals - seem increasingly out of step with community concern and community feeling.

The linked problems of climate change and of prolonged drought, for instance, will not be solved by self-interested individuals or by market solutions but by behavioural change and collective action. For a leader with a normally acute political antenna, Howard was comprehensively blindsided in the second half of 2006 as the previously low-level public anxiety over global warming erupted into a roar. Not surprisingly, with his commitment to “freedom” for the pursuit of individual interests and unswerving, old-fashioned faith in economic developmentalism, Howard had remained a sceptic about the human causes of the phenomenon for as long as it was politically tenable. Despite the intensifying scientific warnings about the need for urgent action, he had dictated that scepticism (or what was dubbed a “no regrets” policy) should remain the entrenched position of the government. In doing so, Howard privileged the counsel of a small cabal of industry executives (a “greenhouse mafia” is the phrase used both by Clive Hamilton and by the former Liberal staffer Guy Pearse) predominantly from the fossil fuel and energy sectors. Contrary opinions were marginalised even when they originated in highly “mainstream” circles. Thus, a proposal by his first environment minister, Robert Hill, for a carbon trading system was disregarded, as was advice in 2003, backed by Treasury and other sections of the public service, that the government investigate an emissions trading scheme.

The efflorescence of global warming as a political issue has exposed Howard as perhaps no other issue has in his prime ministership. It demands new ways of thinking that collide with fixed elements of his world view. When the brute facts and community concerns became undeniable in early 2007 and something had to be done, he conceded ground only grudgingly. He insisted that his government would not be stampeded by the prophets of doom, refused to accept that a connection existed between global warming and the drought and, in typically combative mode, began talking up a dichotomy between the economy and the environment. And when he did act his initial moves reflected an “issue management” approach, again suggesting he did not quite get the issue. Even when it came to water and the drought his major initiative had the hallmarks of what Brian Toohey has dubbed Howard’s “lone-ranger approach to government.” In January 2007 he announced a $10 billion Commonwealth takeover of the Murray-Darling Basin - a plan which, it emerged, was hastily cooked up by his department (both Treasury and the Department of Environment and Water Resources were bypassed) and had not gone to cabinet. Little wonder that in a speech leaked to the media several weeks later, Ken Henry, the frustrated secretary of Treasury (regarded as one of the last bastions of independent thinking in an otherwise largely subservient public service), complained about the quality of policy-making emanating from the government in areas such as climate change and water.

In an election year, Howard knew that he had no choice but to deal himself into the global warming debate; the danger for him, though, was that the damage could already have been done. The issue appeared to be a catalyst for a decisive shift in community perceptions: it left him looking isolated, a leader wedded to the past, with few answers for the future. The “it’s time” genie was out of the bottle. In this sense, it was doubly unfortunate for Howard that public anxieties about global warming spiked around the same time that he was confronted with a new, fresh-faced Labor leader, two decades his junior.

In his 1960s classic, The Lucky Country, Donald Horne characterised Robert Menzies, then at the fag end of his incumbency, as a leader becalmed; the tide of events had run away from him, but he had stayed on nonetheless. Was this already Howard’s fate by mid 2007? His run was ending: everything suggested that the ideas that fuelled his ascent had run their course and he had little left to say and no plan adequate to the circumstances we face.

Yet Howard will resist his fate. While Robert Menzies acquired an air of languid aloofness by the final years of his reign, Howard’s instinct to control has, if anything, grown more frenzied as he contemplates power slipping away. The Murray-Darling Basin plan was followed by a string of other federal interventions, including a takeover of Northern Territory indigenous communities and direct federal funding of a Tasmanian hospital. In each case the approach has been to shoot from the hip rather than prepare the ground with detailed planning. Those who complain about the abandonment of federal arrangements are dismissed by the prime minister as captives to an outmoded political theory: “what is more important here? A theory of governance or the provision of services to the community?” he said when tackled about the Tasmanian intervention. Yet this “theory of governance” was designed to constrain leadership caprice and preserve democracy. How much should we allow to be sacrificed in the name of political expediency? The expansion of federal powers in a suite of policy areas on Howard’s watch is emblematic of the centralising dynamic of his prime ministerial project.

Howard will rage against the dying of the political light. He might not go this year: he may yet extract sufficient electoral leverage from his last great trump card - the economy - and the advantages of incumbency will help preserve him. But, if not this year or even the next, go he will and sooner rather than later. We must do what his followers have been unable to do: we must learn from what he has done and think beyond him. What state will he leave us in? What has he done for the country, and to his party? How much of what we attribute to the Howard era has been shaped by his leadership? And what will it mean for the practice of leadership in the future? •

Paul Strangio and James Walter teach politics at Monash University. Their book, No, Prime Minister: Reclaiming Politics from Leaders (0), is part of the Briefings series published by UNSW Press in association with APO.

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