How Good was Howard?

Captain John

John Howard was a man under extreme pressure the first time I met him, back in 1987. For me, meeting the then Opposition leader was a momentous occasion. For Howard, it might easily have been a tedious distraction from resisting the “Joh for Canberra” campaign. Notwithstanding staff interruptions, he managed to give a twenty-nine-year-old ex-seminarian with an interest in politics forty-five minutes of what seemed like his undivided attention.

Two years later, Howard was the former Opposition leader who’d been rolled by his party, as well as the former Treasurer whose policy had been rejected by his prime minister. “Mr 17 per cent, why does he do it?” was the legendary Bulletin headline. The times had not suited him. What they had done, though, was confirm the decency and strengthen the character that ultimately made him Australia’s best prime minister since Menzies. Adversity had improved him. By the time he became leader again, in 1995, he was less fearful of failure; perhaps because he had been there before and survived.

Howard’s determination and grit are rightly legendary. The consistency of his political positions over a long career is also widely acknowledged even by critics. What’s much less widely appreciated is the quality of his personal conduct in an occupation which is often said to require “a bit of mongrel” in its successful practitioners.

Howard liked people and wanted to help, even to the point of once having the prime ministerial car stopped to render assistance at a traffic accident. He didn’t think that he had all the answers. He was often only too well aware of his own mistakes and limitations. The last thing that could fairly be said of Howard was that he was “full of himself”.

Howard’s habitual restraint and forbearance in his public discourse mirror his courtesy and decency in private. Most of his colleagues have a personal story about his solicitude, often involving visits and calls at times of family crisis or bereavement. Like anyone in an impossibly busy job, Howard could sometimes leave people feeling short-changed. What can’t reasonably be denied, though, is the effort, part instinctive and part hard-learned through bitter experience, that he made to take them seriously.

On the Thursday evenings of parliamentary sitting weeks, MPs scurry to Canberra airport to catch the first flight home. On one such night, a procession of MPs arriving at the VIP lounge, to be told that the flight was (again) delayed, indulged the impulse to complain bitterly about the unfairness of it all. Moments later, Howard arrived to be given the same bad news. This was in mid-1994, when he was not just yesterday’s man but the day before yesterday’s. The has-been with no obvious self-interest in impressing people told the airline staff that it wasn’t their fault and, turning and beaming at his colleagues, observed that he was sure he would enjoy the company. For me, it was a moment of shame in the presence of grace.

At about the same time, I was part of a discussion in Howard’s office. At one point, he put his feet on the coffee table (he would never have taken such liberties in anyone else’s office). The sole of his shoe had worn through in one place. It was hard to imagine the sartorially elegant Paul Keating ever being in that predicament. This sense that Howard was an “ordinary bloke” fed the “battler versus emperor” motif that worked so much in his favour at the 1996 election.

With Howard, “what you saw was what you got”. In this important respect, he was refreshingly different from the multitude of politicians who aren’t quite what they seem. Kevin Rudd, for instance, sometimes lets his choirboy mask slip. In November 2006, the now-Prime Minister berated a journalist who’d described him as a political version of “the class prat” in a phone call laced, the journalist afterwards wrote, with the “f-word and colourful references to me being a kind of very smelly, very fat, and very stupid … genital”.

It’s hard to imagine John Howard ever lowering himself like that. Certainly, in working with him closely for eighteen years as a Coalition staffer, then parliamentary and later cabinet colleague, I hardly heard him raise his voice, let alone use bad language or threaten people. As part of the Coalition parliamentary leadership group from 2001 to 2007, I watched Howard handle some pretty awkward moments with very senior colleagues. He could be tense, distracted, and very occasionally angry, but never crude, snide or insulting. Mostly, he was focused, decisive, respectful almost to a fault and as courteous as the demands of the day allowed.

With Howard, there was no more than the thickness of a cigarette paper between the public and the private man. Even in the run up to the 2007 election, when it was clear that voters had become disenchanted with the Howard government, they never lost their respect for the then Prime Minister, judging by his consistent 50 per cent or so approval ratings. The pervasive element in the Australian public’s assessment of Howard, as expressed to his colleagues in countless conversations with constituents, was that he was “fair dinkum”. “Like me or loathe me,” as Howard himself sometimes put it, “people know where I stand.”

There had been no discernible change in manner after Howard became Prime Minister. One Sunday in 1999, I was rushing out the door for my maiden ministerial interview with Laurie Oakes. When the phone rang, I snapped “Yes” into the receiver, then “Oh … Prime Minister …” Later, with Oakes’s interrogation more or less safely negotiated, I called Howard to thank him for his encouragement and to apologise for being brusque, noting that my wife had “well and truly told me how rude I’d been”. “I get that kind of advice at home too,” was his rueful response.

In discussion with colleagues, Howard would sometimes cite his “one person focus group”, a light-hearted reference to his wife’s political intuition and value as a reality check. Political life is hard on spouses, who often feel like unwilling conscripts in someone else’s fight. Political careers sometimes end prematurely because of opposition at home. Politicians’ marriages often founder because of the stress of living in a goldfish bowl. By contrast, Janette Howard’s unfailing faith in her husband and sound judgment of political issues almost certainly helped to sustain his career at some of its most difficult moments.

No politician succeeds entirely on his or her own. Howard’s political success was partly due to an unusually supportive family. It was partly due to a very good personal office. Chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos, became as familiar with Howard’s thinking as Howard himself and was even cooler in a crisis than his boss. Although Keating’s failures helped to create the Howard government, and Howard’s strengths sustained it, it would not have lasted as long or succeeded so well without senior members, Peter Costello included, who were “ambitious for the higher things” as much as for their next promotion.

The Howard government presided over a golden age, economically at least. The argument that it just coasted on the boom in China and India neglects the importance of good economic management in making the most of favourable circumstances. Robert Manne’s claim, that it might have been the best of economic times but that it was the worst of moral times, doesn’t bear fair-minded scrutiny.

If Australia “went to war on a lie”, the so-called lie about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was almost universally accepted at the time by foreign affairs experts, including Kevin Rudd. In 2001, Howard government ministers did say that children had been thrown overboard but only because that was the initial report from the naval officer on the spot. The claim wasn’t repeated once it became clear that it may not have happened, although ministers continued to justify what had already been said. Once the caretaker period was over, Howard commissioned and then released two reports making quite clear what had really happened.

The moral quality of people’s actions should be judged on what they knew at the time, not on what they might subsequently have discovered. People can’t be condemned for acting on information they reasonably thought was true at the time just because better information later becomes available.

In striving to portray their actions in the best possible light, politicians are much like everyone else. The difference between politicians and many other people is the scrutiny they’re under and the consequence of their work. It’s the nature of the job rather than politicians’ character that causes the public to rank them with journalists and used-car salesmen when it comes to ethics and honesty.

Howard was far better than most politicians at resisting the temptation to “gild the lily” or to be “all things to everyone”. His “honest John” sobriquet may have been conferred ironically but that’s not how the public took it. Over a long career, Howard endured numerous unfair accusations, but never that of telling people what they wanted to hear.

As I discovered early on, it was a waste of time asking Howard to pose as something he was not. On the morning after the 1995 budget, I waited for the then Opposition leader to arrive at his office. “Let’s block the partial sale of the Commonwealth Bank and torpedo Labor’s budget strategy,” I urged, “through a Senate alliance of those who think it goes too far and those, like us, who think it doesn’t go far enough.” He patiently heard me out before saying, with an air of friendly finality, that whatever credibility he had rested on not playing that sort of political game.

The real Howard had almost no resemblance to Labor’s “truth overboard” caricature. A good example of Howard sticking to politically inconvenient truth rather than a diplomatic fib was the pre-election formula in 2007 that, should the government be returned, sometime towards the end of the next parliament, the Liberal leadership would pass to Costello. Voting for Howard but electing Costello was a “big ask” which many voters found unsettling. The formula was not arrived at to appease Costello, who was half inclined to disbelieve it, so much as to satisfy Howard, who point-blank refused to promise to serve a full term knowing that he was highly unlikely to do so. He simply would not follow the example of former premiers Carr, Beattie and Bracks, who made solemn promises to stay that they almost certainly had never intended to keep.

A very senior and experienced former public servant once told me that, sooner or later, all prime ministers go slightly mad and start to believe that they’re politically indispensable. At the mention of Howard’s predecessor, he observed that some were mad before they started. For a long time, Howard’s genuine personal humility, comparatively down-to-earth family life, and capacity to learn from past failures armoured him against the pride that comes before a political fall.

In his first stint as Liberal leader, from 1985 to 1989, Howard was supposed to have played favourites and to have failed to consult widely with colleagues. Although always a supporter, one shadow minister from those days recalls first hearing about Coalition policy in his area on the radio. By 1995, though, Howard had well and truly learnt the importance of taking his colleagues with him. At least until his fourth term, power and success made him more collegial, not less.

Under Howard, cabinet usually met once a week when parliament was sitting and once a fortnight at other times. Cabinet invariably started on time and rarely went for more than three hours. Only very occasionally would the Prime Minister absent himself from cabinet for very pressing business such as calls from foreign leaders. On contentious matters, Howard would usually give everyone the chance to speak, sometimes several times, before offering his own view. To protect a minister in trouble, Howard would occasionally open discussion but rarely in such a way as to close it down. Unscheduled cabinet meetings were rare and usually in response to unforeseeable events such as the arrival of the Tampa.

Not all the Howard government’s big decisions came to cabinet. Last year’s $10 billion water plan, for instance, was announced during the January cabinet recess with only short notice to the rest of the leadership group. On the biggest issues that did come to cabinet—the stopping of the Tampa, the Northern Territory intervention, and participation in the invasion of Iraq, to take some high-profile examples—there was much discussion but little contention. This was not because ministers were reluctant to disagree with their boss. Rather, it was because Howard was very good at shaping the political atmospherics in which decisions were made and invariably had what, at least to his own cabinet, were persuasive arguments. On the big issues, discussion mostly focused on the detail and practicalities rather than the principle of the decision.

Although critics invariably deduce the presence of “yes men” from the absence of obvious dissent, given the place around the cabinet table of such unlikely sycophants as Costello, Nick Minchin and John Fahey, a much better explanation is Howard’s skill as a leader and cabinet chairman. Not everyone wholly agreed with every decision but cabinet leaks were extremely rare and no one ever felt sufficiently sidelined to resign in a huff.

Every disappointed politician is inclined to disparage the management capacities of the party leader, especially after an election defeat. The true test of the leader’s capability, though, is not what colleagues might say after he’s gone but how they acted while he was there. Whatever might now be claimed, while it lasted the Howard government’s members invariably supported the leadership and each other. There was very little off-the-record briefing against colleagues or public grandstanding against government decisions. Even the most notable maverick, backbench Senator Barnaby Joyce, usually differed from the government before rather than after decisions had been made.

This sustained discipline wasn’t because ambitious politicians habitually follow their leader. It happened because Howard made it his business to know what his MPs were thinking and, wherever possible, to address grievances and anticipate problems. It was a rare parliamentary sitting week when Howard did not invite backbenchers to the Lodge for dinner or himself have dinner in the parliamentary dining room. If there was an issue that a member of parliament who couldn’t get a meeting really needed to raise with the Prime Minister, there was invariably a chance to talk to him on the way out of the chamber after question time.

Successful leaders must be able to inspire respect and, if need be, command obedience. As a proven election winner, it was relatively easy for Howard to engender respect but he never took it for granted. He worked at keeping opinionated senior colleagues in line through regular contact, candid discussion, the ability to see things from others’ point of view and, only when all else had failed, the readiness to pull rank. When making ministerial appointments, he’d invariably have some well-chosen words of advice. As Prime Minister, he never, to my knowledge, announced new policy without discussing it first with the relevant minister.

A message that “the Prime Minister had called” occasionally meant that he wanted to say “well done” after a particularly effective piece of work. Sometimes, it would be a query about what was happening in the portfolio. Sometimes, he’d point out some trespass on someone else’s turf that a colleague wasn’t happy about. Sometimes, he would quite forcefully urge a particular course of action. Rarely but memorably, he’d deliver what one colleague termed a “prime ministerial bollocking”.

I had several of these. The first was when I failed quickly enough to deny that I’d one day like to be Costello’s deputy, prompting a brief flurry of leadership speculation in the run up to the 2001 election. Another was when I’d more or less unilaterally decided to include obstetric booking fees in the Medicare safety net, affecting the pre-election financial outlook and limiting the government’s freedom to manoeuvre during the 2004 campaign. There were at least two prompted by the serial offence of suggesting that the federal government might take over responsibility for public hospitals. I was summoned twice in one day to be dressed down for mentioning “the increased risk of terrorism” (which I had discounted) in a parliamentary speech on the impending invasion of Iraq. Given the pressure that he was under at the time and the momentous responsibility he carried, some histrionics were entirely understandable.

A prime ministerial rebuke was not lightly to be risked even in a good cause. Afterwards, the transgressor did not so much feel humiliated as embarrassed at having let down the team. Howard was usually careful to ensure that no row lasted longer than it took to make his point. For instance, a few days after a conversation fierce enough to have been very abruptly terminated, he went conspicuously out of his way to congratulate me on handling a difficult television profile.

Howard’s strongest and most consistent supporters might easily have resented him. Alexander Downer, for instance, never blamed Howard for his 1995 demise as leader. Bill Heffernan readily accepted his demotion after an outburst against a judge. Conversely, as the treatment of people like Andrew Peacock, John Moore and Wilson Tuckey showed, Howard could entirely overlook past grievances when it made sense to do so. The fact that he had such enduring support from his most senior colleagues in an occupation not renowned for diffidence or by-your-leaves among its senior practitioners testifies to his capacity to treat people fairly over a long period of time.

The maintenance of a harmonious cabinet and a disciplined party room for the best part of twelve years is the most effective response to claims that Howard was an indifferent manager of people. Still, there are some criticisms that need specifically to be addressed. The most important is that he mishandled his deputy and failed to put in place a succession strategy.

Howard’s succession strategy was always to have at least one colleague who could readily take his place. In Howard’s judgment that was always going to be Costello because of his intellectual firepower, parliamentary dominance and long experience at the heart of government. Costello supporters often misread Howard as a Machiavellian manipulator who was grooming Peter Reith and later Mal Brough or Malcolm Turnbull to block Costello. A much simpler explanation is that he believed in encouraging talent and giving credit where it was due. Howard’s repeated endorsement of a clear Howard–Costello “pecking order” should have reassured Costello’s backers that he faced no threat from below.

From 1999, Costello was impatient to take the top job and intermittently let his frustration show. As demonstrated by “walletgate” in 2006, Costello thought that he had an arrangement with Howard to assume the leadership sometime in the government’s second term. It’s easy to imagine a Howard statement along the lines that he wouldn’t anticipate staying for more than five years being misinterpreted. Any such comment could have seemed like a binding commitment to an ambitious and capable deputy but a mere statement of the obvious to an incumbent leader. In any event, nearly all political commitments have Lord Keynes’ implicit proviso: “subject to circumstances at the time”.

Mostly, Costello kept his disappointment in check. Refraining from the odd bitter comment would have been heroic virtue in a saint let alone an ambitious politician. He never challenged, because he didn’t want to wreck the government in order to lead it. For his part, Howard gave his deputy every consideration except that of resigning in his favour. It’s to the credit of both that neither let these tensions break a very effective working partnership. In 2003 and again in 2006, within forty-eight hours of being “dudded” as he saw it, Costello was back in harness as steward of the economy and the government’s chief parliamentary advocate.

As matters stand, Costello could be the first long-serving Treasurer and deputy to a successful postwar prime minister not to become prime minister himself. It was right that Holt, Keating and Howard should all have eventually assumed the top job because their political personalities made them obvious political papabile. In Costello’s case, what were perceived as political weaknesses in one context could easily become strengths in a different one, which is why so many former Howard loyalists don’t want Costello to leave the parliament. Only he can decide whether he wants to carry the tag “the greatest prime minister Australia never had” that was once used of Howard. Costello is undeniably the Liberal Party’s best political asset now that Howard is gone, which is why so much turns on whether he recovers the will to serve, which so clearly (if understandably) wavered in the aftermath of the election.

Political parties’ survival instinct means trying to win elections at almost any cost. If opinion polls are to be believed, Howard was always the government’s best electoral asset. It would have been odd to replace a successful leader with an apparently less popular one because the deputy had a sense of entitlement, however justified. Replacing the leader in 2006 might have made a difference, but only if the public had thought that it was change for the better. The success of other governments’ baton-changes (to Paul Keating and Morris Iemma, for instance) seems to have owed more to inept opposition than rejuvenation in office. It was only last-minute, poll-driven panic during the 2007 APEC meeting that finally shook the confidence of the people who knew them both that Howard was the more likely to win. By then, it was almost certainly too late to change.

Some former ministers have criticised Howard for allowing Downer’s APEC canvass of cabinet ministers’ views if he wasn’t ready to resign. Notwithstanding his 2006 commitment to stay, Howard was indeed prepared to resign in October 2007 but only if the cabinet requested it. Ultimately, the cabinet wouldn’t do what Downer later said would have been “more like executing your father than sacking your boss”. After saying for so long that his future was in the hands of the parliamentary Liberal Party, it was unsettling of Howard then to cite his family’s view that he should stay as a decisive factor. Still, his readiness to go, even only if pushed, is hardly the intransigence of Bob Hawke staring down a ministerial lynch mob or Joh Bjelke-Petersen demanding that the Governor sack the cabinet rather than the Premier.

Another criticism of Howard is that he was an indifferent judge of talent. If true, the later Howard cabinets should have been less competent than the early ones that he largely inherited. Given the ministerial casualties of Howard’s first term, this would be a very hard argument to sustain. All prime ministers pick the occasional dud. As the first Rudd ministry bears out, the need for state, house, gender and factional balance means that some talented MPs aren’t promoted as quickly as they might expect. Howard was no freer than any other prime minister to select the ministry he really wanted.

It was a mistake to drop Bronwyn Bishop because she’d been a minister for two terms and was not about to be promoted to cabinet, especially as Joe Hockey subsequently had to wait two and a half terms before being promoted to cabinet. On the other hand, treating a party “moderate” more favourably than a “conservative” suggests that Howard was not the factional warrior of hostile caricature. As well, the claim that Howard was “uncomfortable with women” grinds against the other claim (sometimes advanced by the same critics) that he was over-influenced by his wife. In any event, of the ten women elevated to federal cabinet prior to 2007, Howard appointed five.

Almost by definition, a winner who becomes a loser has “lost his touch”. On the other hand, if the political environment had changed, a previously successful formula might no longer work. It’s possible that, after almost twelve gruelling years as Prime Minister, Howard had lost some of his enthusiasm for the job, but it was hardly evident in his schedule or the quality of his public performances. Perhaps dealing with unassuageable grievances and unsolvable problems, especially after twelve years of making a difference where it was in the federal government’s power to do so, had dulled Howard’s capacity to “feel voters’ pain”.

The government’s biggest political problem, the WorkChoices legislation, was the result of an error of judgment rather than a failure to consult or properly to manage colleagues. WorkChoices was subject to full cabinet and party room consideration. No one was gagged. Everyone had ample opportunity to express reservations, which a few did.

The WorkChoices legislation reflected the former government’s determination not to squander a Senate majority, as the Fraser government was perceived to have done. In this case, Howard’s determination not to “wimp out” trumped his normal care about how far the public was prepared for change. Whether it amounted to political arrogance depends on whether the 2004 Senate outcome should have been regarded as a fluke to be ignored or might actually have been a vote of confidence in the government’s judgment.

Since Menzies left office, there have been at least a handful of senior politicians more charismatic, eloquent or companionable than John Howard but none more effective as a leader. Under Howard, there were more than 2 million new jobs, a 21 per cent increase in real average wages and a doubling of Australia’s net wealth per person. Before Howard, the introduction of a GST, work for the dole, border protection, the reversal of welfarism in remote Aboriginal townships and statutory non-union individual contracts would have been considered political suicide.

Thanks to Howard’s good management of key allies and friends, and readiness to back good intentions with strong actions, Australia’s international influence was probably higher than ever. Through a combination of good character, shrewd judgment and effective advocacy, Howard made the hitherto impossible achievable. Of course, Howard had faults and failings, but none which prevented him from outperforming all Menzies’ other prime ministerial successors.

Notwithstanding Rudd’s me-too tactic in opposition, it’s only natural that the new government should try to rewrite Howard’s history. To avoid a long spell in the wilderness, Howard’s former colleagues must learn from his mistakes without trashing his legacy. If Howard’s legacy is diminished, so is the work of all his colleagues and so are the achievements of our country through twelve largely golden years.

The Hon. Tony Abbott has held the federal seat of Warringah for the Liberal Party since 1994. He held a number of ministerial portfolios in the federal government between 1998 and 2007. He is currently Shadow Minister for Families, Community Services, Indigenous Affairs and the Voluntary Sector.

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