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Tim Gabor's Howard's end

The American Magazine: Howard's End?

"On March 11, 1996, Howard was sworn in as prime minister, a position he has kept ever since. Australians reelected him in 1998, 2001, and 2004."

Image: Upside-down painting of John Howard by The American's Tim Gabor. We framed and adapted it.

"He's running again today. The race has been tough, and a Howard victory would be surprising, but in each of his four previous campaigns he has faced serious obstacles."

"Tom Switzer, opinion page editor at The Australian newspaper, says that whenever Howard has received a kiss of death, "it's amounted to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; he revives and bounces back with tremendous force."

"His story - the lack of outward charm, the years in the wilderness, the back-from-the-dead revival - has a Nixonian feel to it. Howard's 1989 leadership defeat came a few months before his 50th birthday. Asked then about his prospects of returning to the post, he quipped that it would be like "Lazarus with a triple bypass." How did he do it?"

Related pages:

5 December 2004: Tony Kevin: Howard in Vientiane - another own goal - Here we go again - another avoidable Australian failure of regional diplomacy, but spun to a credulous media at home as a success; even the spurious backgrounding argument that "we were ambushed by ASEAN over this" and that we were somehow clever and tough not to be caught in their trap.

27 November 2004: Eureka 150 years: Howard snubs Australian history - It really is a remarkable state of affairs when the Head of State of The Australian Commonwealth, John Howard, snubs a major historical event such as the 150-year anniversary commemorations of the Eureka Stockade, which started yesterday with a major celebration in Ballarat, and with events planned in all States and Territories around the country.

24 November 2004: Got a disability? "Get over it, get a job", says Howard - Here we go folks - first it was refugees and asylum seekers, last week it was High Noon for Australian Indigenous people, and today Wild West Honest John targets people with a disability.

11 November 2004: Howard's way with The First Australians: shame, shame, shame - Welfare for showering yourself with soap - today is Howard's day for Howard's way with indigenous people. The PM is quietly, bit by bit, announcing his hardline welfare policy for indigenous people, he raids the only Indigenous newspaper we have, the National Indigenous Times.

10 November 2004: John Howard refuses protection for Australia's Highest Court - This surely must be a deliberate refusal on the part of the Howard government to protect Commonwealth legislation as vested in the High Court of Australia, and it leaves no choice but to conclude that the Australian Prime Minister is seriously in contempt of Australian law, and in contempt of The High Court.

9 November 2004: Tony Kevin: No need for a dirt unit on John Howard - Watching Mark Latham confronting allegations from his first wife, disgruntled local councillors, and the alleged Howard government 'Dirt Unit' in recent days, left me wondering - why are Howard's alleged serious crimes of state still not being properly discussed or investigated?

4 November 2004: Robert Bosler and John Howard - "This painting questions John Howard's fitness to serve. It is not about evil. It's not about the bible. It's about John Howard purposely allowing himself to be susceptible to forces of negativity."

2 November 2004: Brendan Nelson: First strike in Howard's Culture Wars - Howard's appreciation ratings have never been high enough to even rate in any rankings. While Latham has a PhD and has written several books, and also has several biographies on the bookshelves, Howard remains absent in the hearts of Australians, and I think he knows it. So, after getting our votes, he now wants our minds instead.

Howard's End?

By Duncan Currie
The American
A Magazine of Ideas
September/October 2007
Filed under: World Watch

Australian Prime Minister John Howard -- perhaps the most successful democratic leader in the world today -- faces an uphill battle for reelection. But he's been behind before. DUNCAN CURRIE traveled to Australia to find out how Howard does it, and whether he can do it again.

Over the past 16 years, it is safe to say that, among developed countries, Australia has enjoyed the longest, most impressive economic boom. The policies that helped unleash this prosperity were initiated under the Labor Party, but they were enhanced and extended by Prime Minister John Howard, who by some calculations is the most successful democratic politician in the world. Howard expanded Australian trade, revamped the tax code, and eliminated the government's debt. The result has been a huge increase in the average Australian's standard of living, thanks to an economy that has grown at an average annual rate of over 3.5 percent since late 1991.

Now, however, as Australia, a nation of about 21 million (slightly more populous than New York state), faces an upcoming election, Howard's party is trailing badly in the polls. Perhaps, after nearly 12 years in office, he's worn out his welcome. But Howard, a savvy operator whose appeal belies his dull personality, has been behind before. Whether he wins or loses this time, Howard's impact on Australia will certainly endure. Americans have a good deal to learn from what he's done and how he's done it.

In December 1988, during his first stint as head of the center-right Australian Liberal Party ("liberal" in the European sense of favoring free-market economic policies), John Howard landed on the cover of The Bulletin, a prominent Australian news magazine published in conjunction with Newsweek. Dubbing Howard "Mr. 18 Percent" -- an allusion to his dismal poll numbers -- The Bulletin asked, "Why on earth does this man bother?"

While Labor critics skewered him as a "white picket fence" conservative nostalgic for the 1950s, many Liberals felt he was weak and uncharismatic. Five months after his "Mr. 18 Percent" cover, Howard was ejected from the party leadership in a bitter revolt.

That moment was the nadir of a remarkable career. On March 11, 1996, Howard was sworn in as prime minister, a position he has kept ever since. Australians reelected him in 1998, 2001, and 2004. He's running again today. The race has been tough, and a Howard victory would be surprising -- but in each of his four previous campaigns he has faced serious obstacles. Tom Switzer, opinion page editor at The Australian newspaper, says that whenever Howard has received a kiss of death, "it's amounted to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; he revives and bounces back with tremendous force."

It would be tempting to group Howard with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: three transformative "Anglosphere" leaders who shifted their nations' politics to the right. But while Reagan and Thatcher both broke with the fiscal policies of their predecessors, Howard embraced and expanded the market reforms that were already underway when he arrived.

Critics mock him as boring and wooden, yet Howard has cultivated a friendly stable of traditional Labor voters known as "Howard Battlers," the equivalent of Reagan Democrats. However much the media and academic mandarins may despise what they see as his retrograde posture on the Australian culture wars, Howard says he represents mainstream values, and his "average bloke" persona has served him well.

His story -- the lack of outward charm, the years in the wilderness, the back-from-the-dead revival -- has a Nixonian feel to it. Howard's 1989 leadership defeat came a few months before his 50th birthday. Asked then about his prospects of returning to the post, he quipped that it would be like "Lazarus with a triple bypass." How did he do it?

Born on July 26, 1939, John Winston Howard grew up in suburban Sydney, the fourth and youngest son of middle-class parents. His affinity for small business may stem in part from his father, a World War I veteran who managed a gas station and died when Howard was still a teenager. Howard attended public school before studying law at the University of Sydney. His association with the Liberal Party dates from the late 1950s, when he was still a law student. Indeed, with his "regular guy" image -- an Australian journalist once labeled him "awesomely ordinary" -- Howard is basically a career politician. He even met his wife, Janette, at a Liberal Party event.

He first won election to Parliament in May 1974 in the Sydney district of Bennelong. Climbing with remarkable speed, Howard became federal treasurer -- with responsibility for preparing the national budget -- by the end of 1977, under Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. Known as "the boy treasurer," he clashed with Fraser over deregulation, tax cuts, and spending. Plagued by a nasty recession, Fraser lost the 1983 election to Bob Hawke, who launched 13 years of Labor Party rule.

In 1985, Howard wrested the party leadership from Andrew Peacock. "He came to the opposition leadership almost by accident," says Arthur Sinodinos, his chief of staff from October 1997 to December 2006, "as a result of a series of mistakes, I suppose you could say, by his internal party critics." Once he took the job, many Liberal MPs questioned Howard's legitimacy. Four years later, in May 1989, Howard lost the leadership post. Like Nixon after the 1962 California governor's race, he was presumed finished.

"He looked down and out several times when he was in opposition, but he hung on," says Owen Harries, who formerly served as a senior adviser to Prime Minister Fraser and later as Australian ambassador to UNESCO. "There's an element of ruthlessness in his makeup."

Howard was in the wilderness from 1989 to 1995. He watched his party fritter away the 1993 election, the first after the recession of the early 1990s, which the Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, had clumsily explained as "the recession we had to have." Liberal boss John Hewson campaigned on an economic platform known as "Fightback!" He advocated a goods-and-services tax (GST) -- a form of consumption tax -- as part of a plan to reduce income and corporate taxes, cut spending, and increase savings. Keating assailed the GST as regressive and painted Hewson as being too far to the right. Against all odds, Keating persuaded voters to hand Labor a fifth successive term. Howard, meanwhile, jumped into the post-1993 disarray and, after two failed bids, wound up recapturing the Liberal Party reins in 1995.

Widely perceived as aloof and condescending, Keating soon alienated many of the blue-collar union workers who made up his party's base. "We seemed to be captured by this intellectual, inner-city, café-latte group," says Warren Mundine, who served as national president of the Labor Party from January 2006 to April 2007. "I think [Howard] exploited that very well."

Howard positioned himself as the anti-Keating -- allowing Labor's missteps, rather than Liberal policy proposals, to dominate the race. He used Keating's enthusiasm for multiculturalism to peel off Labor swing voters, who felt the pendulum of political correctness had swung too far. As Keating now puts it, Howard portrayed himself as "somebody who wouldn't rock the boat," pledging that he would "never, ever" introduce a GST and would maintain a generous safety net. It worked. Along with their coalition partner, the rural-based National Party, the Liberals regained power. After the election, the party's campaign manager, Andrew Robb, reckoned that "Labor's vote among blue-collar workers fell from nearly 50 percent in 1993 to 39 percent in 1996."

Australia's culture wars revolve not around abortion, gay marriage, or guns -- Howard enacted sweeping gun control measures after 35 people died in the 1996 Port Arthur shooting, and recently criticized America's "gun culture" following the Virginia Tech massacre -- but around immigration, Aboriginal affairs, and British monarchism. Howard promotes assimilation and "Australian values," though he has quietly boosted overall immigration rates. In January, he changed the name of the "Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs" to the "Department of Immigration and Citizenship." He takes a dim view of apologizing for the historic mistreatment of Aborigines, Australia's equivalent of American Indians.

Howard is also a staunch monarchist, rejecting calls for Australia to switch from the status of a constitutional monarchy (under the British crown) to a republic. In a 1999 referendum on the matter, he craftily split the republican vote. Although polls indicated that a majority of Australians were pro-republic, the referendum question asked whether they supported replacing the Queen and her governor-general with a president "appointed by a two-thirds majority" of Parliament. This wording led some republicans, who wanted a popularly elected president, to vote "no." In the final tally, the "no" side carried the day with over 54 percent. The breakdown reflected cultural fissures: many of Howard's working-class Battlers scorned the elitism of "Chardonnay republicans." As the BBC reported, "Opposition was greatest among voters in poorer, blue-collar city suburbs or regional towns."

"I 'm a great believer in perpetual campaigning," Howard said in 2004, after his third reelection. When Parliament is in session, he conducts a daily "question time," an exercise that allows legislators of both parties to interrogate him on the floor. Confident and quick on his feet, he offers a constant stream of radio and TV interviews. Facing the tough Australian press corps, says Sinodinos, has "really kept him on his toes." Howard resides primarily in Sydney, rather than in the capital city of Canberra (at great cost to taxpayers, his critics grumble).

"He has no close friends outside politics," says Peter Hartcher, political editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. "It's the only thing he lives for." Australia's post-World War II economic expansion officially ended in 1971. Reliant on mineral resources and protectionism, the nation had resisted serious free-market reforms for decades. The result, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, was sclerosis and recession. The consensus favoring high tariffs, centralized financial markets, and onerous labor regulations had been essentially bipartisan.

Hawke's Labor government, with Keating serving as treasurer, finally gave Australia an economic face-lift in the 1980s, daring to float the currency, slash tariffs, and overhaul the wage structure. "The Hawke-Keating policies were about taking power off the cabinet table and giving it to the markets," says Keating, now 63. He claims that the reforms were the beginning of the concept of "The Third Way," an idea he says Tony Blair "stole" for Britain's Labour Party after visiting Australia.

These policies were a huge practical success -- the country emerged from recession in 1991 and has been growing ever since. But by helping Australia, the Labor Party hurt itself: the decline in union membership and growth in international trade that followed its reforms created a whole new class of Liberal voters.

Today, more Australians are self-employed than belong to labor unions. Howard touts the "aspirational" ethos of his Battlers, whose ranks swell with small-business owners. Australia's historic economic expansion, now at the end of its 16th year, has produced a significant boost in real wages. According to John Edwards, chief economist at HSBC Bank Australia and a former Keating adviser, "Between 1991 and 2005 real income per head increased 32% in Canada, 35% in the US, 36% in New Zealand and 38% in the UK, the four Anglo economies to which Australia is often compared. In Australia real income per head increased 43% over the period." The country has recently been aided by high global commodity prices and a massive spike in exports to China.

Yet Howard, who has presided over most of this remarkable boom, has not simply coasted along. In his first term, he cut spending and obtained full independence for the Australian Reserve Bank. He also reversed his election pledge and campaigned successfully for GST reform. The budget moved into surplus. More impressively, the reformed economy kept growing through the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, which crushed many of Australia's neighbors. Howard took control of a government that had accumulated $96 billion in total debt (in Australian dollars, which at the time was the equivalent of about $74 billion in U.S. dollars), and has now paid it off entirely. Thanks to the GST, he has been able to shrink corporate and income taxes. Unemployment today is at its lowest level in more than three decades, and, as The Economist magazine noted last March, average annual GDP growth during the boom has been about 3.6 percent, compared with 2.5 percent for the developed countries that are members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Kim Beazley, who led the Labor Party into electoral battles with Howard in 1998 and 2001 before stepping down, came tantalizingly close to winning both times. In the 1998 campaign, Howard ran on the GST he had opposed just two years earlier. "I don't think he or I would recommend it to any other world leader," says Grahame Morris, Howard's former chief of staff, with understatement. "That was a massive, massive risk." Labor ended up winning the popular vote, but the Liberal-National Coalition held onto a razor-thin majority in Parliament's lower house, where control of the government is decided. The GST passed in the summer of 1999 and went into effect a year later.

In 2001, Labor seemed to be poised for victory. But that election wound up occurring in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and amid a wave of Australian concern over domestic border security. Surging numbers of "boat people," often transported by smugglers, had for years been attempting to reach Australia illegally and claim refugee status. Now Howard cracked down. In the most spectacular incident, he refused to allow a Norwegian cargo ship carrying more than 400 asylum seekers to enter Australian waters, prompting a lengthy dispute. Critics wailed that he was pandering to supporters of Pauline Hanson's anti-immigrant One Nation Party. Sinodinos insists Howard was simply trying to discourage illegal immigration and guarantee public backing for the legal kind. Howard quickly discovered a new campaign slogan: "We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come." His rigid border policy and muscular terror-fighting agenda helped the Coalition reverse its fortunes and, in a vote two months after 9/11, boost its majority in the House of Representatives, holding 82 seats to Labor's 65.

After these two losses, Labor once again led in early polls prior to the 2004 ballot. But thanks to another weak Labor leader, resilient economic growth, and Howard's seemingly endless supply of good luck, the opposition found its hopes dashed for a fourth straight time.

Australia's federal elections are generally won or lost in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, home to many Howard Battlers. Voting is compulsory in Australia. In the allot system used for elections to the House, where the government is formed, voters rank their candidates in order of preference: "1," "2," "3," etc. If no House candidate receives an absolute majority of first-preference (or "primary") votes, the first- and second-preference votes are counted together. If needed, the third-preference votes are counted and so on until one candidate has an outright majority.

Because Labor depends on second-preference votes from the Greens, the party has been dragged leftward on environmental issues. For example, shortly before the 2004 election, bowing to Green pressure, Labor leader Mark Latham called for strict limits on logging in the old-growth forests of Tasmania. Australia's economy relies heavily on the extraction of natural resources, and, in this case, local timber workers became energized in opposition to the restrictions, allowing Howard to play the role of populist, rather than captain of industry. Traveling to Launceston, he vowed that forest preservation "should not occur at the expense of jobs." The enduring image from the final days of the campaign was one of Tasmanian loggers cheering a conservative prime minister. "The policy on forestry was a disaster for us," says Mundine.

So was the Latham campaign as a whole. The loose-tongued Labor boss tried to capitalize on opposition to the Iraq war (Australia dispatched around 2,000 troops initially). He blasted Howard for the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and hinted that he would bring forces home by Christmas 2004. The war may be unpopular in Australia, but Howard put Latham on the defensive over his shaky stance on the U.S. alliance -- still the bulwark of Australian security policy -- and his call for an arbitrary withdrawal date. Kicking off the campaign in August, Howard asked, "Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia's behalf against international terrorism?" The question hit home on September 9, exactly one month before the election, when terrorists detonated a car bomb outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Howard also kept the focus on Australia's prosperity. When I spoke to Liberal Senator Brett Mason late in the 2004 campaign, he jokingly remarked, "It's the economy, stupid." Howard raised the prospect that, under Labor, interest rates would shoot up. As in previous campaigns, he offered a slew of popular tax cuts and spending pledges just before the vote. On election day, the Coalition increased its House majority and also won a new majority in the Senate, the first time a government had controlled Australia's upper chamber since 1981.

Howard has since completed the privatization of Telstra, the telecommunications giant, and championed a controversial new industrial relations law known as "WorkChoices," which further deregulated the labor system by moving from collective bargaining to individual contracts. Howard has tangled with organized labor before. In 1998, he challenged the Maritime Union of Australia and tried to break its iron control of the waterfront. "It was a bit like Reagan and the air-traffic controllers," says Sinodinos. "It was a signal that aberrant labor behavior would no longer be tolerated." His opponents cast Howard's move as a major blunder. "One thing is an absolute certainty," said Ian Macdonald, a Labor legislator. "John Howard will not be prime minister next year." (Since then, of course, he has won three elections.)

Abroad, Howard has intensified his country's engagement with its neighbors, especially since the October 2002 Bali terrorist bombings that killed 88 Australians. He signed defense pacts with the Philippines and Japan. He remains steadfast on Iraq and Afghanistan, even jabbing American Democrats for "giving great comfort and encouragement to al-Qaeda and the insurgency." Critics argue that Howard is too deferential to George Bush, and that Iraq falls well outside the perimeter of Australia's national interest. "John Howard is very big on loyalty," says Morris. "He is never going to walk away from Iraq, nor from President Bush." But will that hurt him politically?

By late March, The Economist reported that Howard was "facing the worst opinion polls of his prime ministership." (Roughly a year earlier, he had scored a 60 percent approval rating.) Surveys throughout spring and early summer gave Labor a double-digit advantage over the Coalition. Laborites are thrilled to have their most promising leader in years, Kevin Rudd, who is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. He has defied recent party dogma by favoring free-market policies like privatizing Telstra, and seems youthful and fresh (he turns 50 on September 21) when compared to the 68-year-old Howard.

The prime minister has other problems. When I arrived in Sydney in April, media outlets were saturated with news of David Hicks, the "Australian Taliban," captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and held at Guantanamo Bay for five years before making a guilty plea. Howard's foes call the affair more evidence of Bush's bullying and Howard's sycophancy.

Yet I got the sense that Hicks will not be a big campaign theme. Nor, for that matter, will Iraq. The opposition seems far more obsessed with interest rates, rising housing costs, WorkChoices, and climate change than with Middle East policy. Several rate hikes since the 2004 election have disturbed faith in the Coalition's economic management. Union members, along with Rudd, are criticizing industrial reform. Even conservative pundit Paul Kelly, editor-at-large of The Australian, says the new labor scheme bends "too far to employers."

As for the alliance with the United States, Howard's February attack on Senator Barack Obama's Iraq withdrawal plan ("If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq," Howard told an Australian TV station, "I would put a circle around March 2008 and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats") was a gaffe, leading many Australians to question whether he could work with a Democratic president. He even faces a challenge for his own parliamentary seat in Bennelong, whose safety has been compromised a bit by new boundaries. The Labor candidate, Maxine McKew, is a well-known (and rather attractive) former TV reporter.

Australia has also experienced a drought of historic proportions. In seeking to alleviate the crisis, Howard was awkwardly reminded that his party does not control a single state or territorial government. Greens and Laborites seized on the water shortage as proof of man-made global warming and used it to castigate Howard's climate-change record. (In fact, whatever the cause of the drought, Australia's market-based policies for allocating water have mitigated the consequences.) Australia did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and Howard looks askance at harsh carbon dioxide emissions caps that would jeopardize jobs. A November 2006 poll found that 62 percent of Australians believe the government is doing too little to combat global warming.

So Howard must wage an uphill battle. The election is expected sometime this fall (and must occur by January). In May, Howard warned Coalition MPs that the threat of electoral "annihilation" was real. But can Lazarus rise from the dead once more? By now, his chastened critics are wary of drafting premature obituaries. The government has changed from one party to another just four times since 1949. Howard may not be widely liked, but his political skills are widely respected. As of early August, Hartcher still believed he would rally to win a fifth term, largely because of public support for the Coalition's economic stewardship.

Howard is a permanent campaigner, who likes to crack that "you can't fatten the pig on market day." He is hammering away at Labor's credibility on the economy. Trying to wrest back the momentum on climate change, he has announced that Australia ill adopt a carbon-trading regime by 2012. He has agreed to soften the WorkChoices legislation. In June, he launched initiatives to curb Aboriginal child abuse in the Northern Territory. The polls have narrowed since spring.

But should the Coalition lose, many will wonder if Howard didn't stick around one election too long, at the expense of his treasurer and rival, Peter Costello, 50, an eloquent free-marketeer who has craved the leadership for years. Howard could leave the Liberal Party in a bleak condition.

Yet, whether he wins or loses, Howard has established a staggering record of accomplishment. He has dominated the past decade of Australian politics no less than Reagan dominated U.S. politics in the 1980s, both shaping and responding to the public mood. In the process, Howard has proved far more successful than any conservative politician in the world today. "He has moved the whole country to the right," says Hartcher. "No question."

In 1986, Howard famously told an Australian journalist, "The times will suit me." Seventeen years later, that same journalist, a fierce Howard critic, looked back on what she called her "memorable dinner" with the future prime minister. "Commentators today misunderstand the man and his modus operandi when they argue that today's times suit Howard because the era has become so conservative," wrote Anne Summers. "They fail to understand how much he has made the times -- how much Australia today reflects his values and his views." Of how many democratic politicians, anywhere, can that actually be said?

Duncan Currie is Managing Editor of The American. In past editions, he has profiled Representative Charlie Rangel and SEC Chairman Christopher Cox.