Back to top

G'day, Bruce

John Howard wanted to be the new Bob Menzies. Today, it was finally confirmed that he has become the new Stanley Bruce.

There's a difference, though. After Prime Minister Bruce lost the seat of Flinders in 1929, he stood again at the next election in 1931, and won, returning to parliament (albeit as a backbencher) until 1933.

Don't even think for one second of John Howard running for Bennelong in 2010 (although Philip Ruddock retiring and Howard nominating for the ensuing Berowra by-election is a cute, but utterly fanciful, notion).

Howard lost Bennelong for the same reason that his government lost Australia - someone better came along. Thank goodness it was Maxine McKew standing in Bennelong and Mike Bailey in North Sydney, and not the other way round.

The Australian public have wanted to get rid of Howard for longer than any of the Liberal Party post-mortemists would care to admit. The punters wanted someone better. It wasn't Simon Crean. Even though Kim Beazley deserved to be PM in 1998, and should have been PM in 2001, by the time 2005 rolled along he was no longer the answer.

It's Mark Latham who is the clue. He had a huge surge in the popularity opinion polls in early 2004, after he had become leader of the party, just as Kevin Rudd did in early 2007. The big difference is that Mark Latham frightened the horses. And the taxi-drivers. And everybody else.

The ALP had gone from an earnest man (Crean) without leadership qualities to a loose cannon (Latham) without leadership qualities. Ironically, his "I'm ready to lead. He's ready to leave" mantra of the 2004 election campaign was three years (and two Labor leaders) ahead of its time.

This is my final post on this blog under the "aus election 2007" tag. There is no point in attempting to do a political obituary of John Howard - I have spewed forth much about the man in these pages over the past four years. And John Quiggin, Australia's finest political blogista, has today done a superb and (I think) balanced reflection on the Howard premiership.

Instead, let me attempt a hagiography. I've been thinking over the past week since the election about the good things that John Howard has been responsible for over the past eleven years. Not an easy task, but I've scratched up a few things.

1. The elimination of foreign debt, claimed to be $96 billion when Howard came to office in 1996. Peter Costello declared Australia free of net debt in early 2006. Never mind the dodgy rhetoric and the smoke and mirrors utilised to arrived at that declaration. And never mind the methods used to achieve the elimination of that debt, in particular the privatisation of Telstra and the Sydney Airport (both massive cockups from an infrastructure perspective). Good management or good luck? Hint: John Howard said in 1996 "the times suit me".

1a. The establishment of a "Future Fund" to create a tangible provision for future Commonwealth superannuation liabilities (which previously had been both generous and unfunded). It took the proceeds from the complete privatisation of Telstra to facilitate the birth of the Future Fund, but I consider this to be Costello's most positive achievement as treasurer, and thus Howard's most positive economic achievement as PM.

2. The sweeping reform of gun laws following the Port Arthur massacre of April 1996, including a massive government-funded buyback of shotguns and rapid-fire rifles. He made Australia a safer place from guns, five years before he started to scare Australia with the ideologically exaggerated bogeys of ammonium nitrate, anthrax, and low-flying aircraft.

3. Sending a peacekeeping force into Timor-Leste in 1999 on behalf of the UN, even if it took a huge amount of nagging to convince him to do it.

4. (And this is an extremely qualified choice): The Northern Territory "intervention". Taking drastic action to eliminate child abuse in response to the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle report was good. The methods used (the imposition, in all but name, of martial law while disregarding all 94 recommendations of the Report) were not. Even worse was the fact that Howard's government had paid scant attention to indigenous poverty for eleven years until the proverbial hit the proverbial.

5. He was the comforting grandfather figure to the nation at times of major tragedy (Port Arthur 1996, Bali 2002, etc). Which was one reason why he was happy to see the back of Australia's best-ever Governor-General, Bill Deane, in 2001.

Howard's future in retirement? I've come up with three options:
(a) A ceremonial role (eg: patron, no.1 ticket holder, mascot) with one or more of the Australian Rugby Union, Cricket Australia or the Australian Olympic team.
(b) Gardening correspondent for Alan Jones on 2GB.
(c) Activist for peace in Darfur.