A Balanced Prime Minister

First a disclaimer. In 1994, two years before he became Australia’s twenty-fifth prime minister, John Howard wrote me a letter praising my biography of the ALP’s Queensland premier, federal treasurer and deputy leader, E.G. (“Red Ted”) Theodore. He agreed with my assessment that Theodore was probably the most talented Labor politician never to become prime minister of Australia.

Mr Howard’s reflections on contemporary life and politics certainly deserve a wide readership. Dedicated to his grandchildren, in the hope that Australia is as good to them as it has been to him, A Sense of Balance argues, somewhat controversially, that it is our sense of balance, especially in the formulation of public policy, which has defined us as a nation. 

This review appears in November’s Quadrant.
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While I admire John Howard and much of his legacy, his latest book does contain some weaknesses. In particular, it glosses over the sad reality that, after Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister in September 2015, the Liberal Party ceased being Liberal and seemed to stand for nothing. It is important to understand that Abbott was one of only four Liberal leaders to win government from Opposition—the other three being Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and Howard himself. In 2013 Abbott gained a clear majority of thirty seats in the House of Representatives. Yet only three years later, Turnbull nearly lost the election. Sadly, A Sense of Balance has no index, which would have been helpful in easily accessing these and a host of other matters. If there is a second edition, it should definitely contain an index. 

I also have some problems with the title of the book. This is primarily because many of Howard’s key decisions as Prime Minister, especially the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, workplace relations reform, work for the dole and other changes to the welfare system, were highly contentious. In no way did they involve appealing to a balanced middle ground. They weren’t a matter of splitting the difference; they involved clear, decisive and often unpopular decisions. 

As it happens, these days Howard is more sympathetic to the divisive Liberal Prime Minister from March 1971 to December 1972, William McMahon, who like Howard was a strong advocate for free trade. On this key economic issue, McMahon was utterly unlike his arch-enemy, the pugnacious, strongly protectionist Country Party leader from 1958 to 1971, John McEwen, who retired from politics shortly before McMahon became Prime Minister. 

It is fascinating to learn that Howard thought in 2010, and still does, that “Labor made a huge blunder” in replacing Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard. He also argues, rightly, that no coherent policy case was advanced by Turnbull or his supporters as to why Abbott should be deposed as Liberal leader and Prime Minister. All that was regularly cited was the Coalition deficit in thirty preceding Newspolls. As Howard writes, “It was not as if MPs were outraged by Abbott’s repudiation of a fundamental tenet of Liberal philosophy. Many Liberals who later disdained Turnbull would point to Turnbull’s loss of even more than 30 Newspolls as a reason why he should go.” 

According to Howard, the removal of two Prime Ministers “who had led their parties back into government before either had completed a full term bespoke immaturity and an incapacity to treat politics seriously”. Even though polls are regularly bad for incumbents, as they often were for Howard, the Newspoll before Rudd’s removal was 52–48 in favour of the ALP! 

In some fascinating fresh material Howard reveals that the day after the 2016 election, when Turnbull squeaked in, Howard rang trying to persuade him to make Abbott Defence Minister. Turnbull refused on the grounds that he couldn’t trust Abbott. Howard notes that while such a move “would not have quenched Abbott’s desire to return to the Lodge … it would have given the country an energetic and articulate Defence Minister, with a deep commitment to our defence personnel. It would also have kept Abbott within the tent.” Howard argues, perhaps a tad unfairly, that instead, Abbott “remained a restless discontented soul on the backbench, a constant irritant to Turnbull”. In stark contrast, Abbott moved Turnbull from the backbench into shadow cabinet in 2010, and made him Minister for Communications in the 2013 Abbott government.

A Sense of Balance celebrates “The Australian Achievement”, analyses whether or not January 26 should be regarded as Australia Day or as “Invasion Day”, and outlines our many strengths, as well as exposing our flaws, including some of our past and present dealings with indigenous peoples. In particular, this relatively short book of 292 pages, which includes six pages of endnotes, canvasses what Howard regards as the many strengths and occasional weaknesses of recent Australian politics. As we know, the latter included an unfortunate parade of six prime ministers in eleven years—a blip which may be only temporary. Australia could indeed revert to relatively long-term federal governments.

Among many fascinating international topics, Howard highlights our dilemma about how to deal with the belligerent rise of Communist China, which continues to build hundreds of hugely carbon-dioxide-emitting coal power plants. Handling our relationship with China, which was until recently our largest export destination, is undoubtedly our most important challenge in foreign policy. Moreover, as Howard puts it, “Approximately 1.4 million Australians are of Chinese descent. Chinese is the most widely spoken foreign language in our country.” But as he stresses, it is of the utmost importance to support our major ally, America.

In A Sense of Balance Howard examines, in detail, both the furore surrounding the election of Donald Trump as the Republican President of the United States and the Brexit referendum. He also writes more briefly, but affectionately, about Great Britain after Brexit. Given the recent death of Queen Elizabeth, a particularly poignant chapter is “Long May She Reign!” It comes as no surprise to be reminded that Howard is an articulate advocate of constitutional monarchy; a strong supporter of the reserve powers of the governor-general; and a staunch opponent of an Australian president, however he or she may be elected.

The last, and to me most illuminating, section of the book deals with the May 2022 election, in which electors delivered the eighth change of federal government since the Second World War. Perhaps grudgingly, they voted in an ALP led by Anthony Albanese and his capable shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers.

Howard despairs that, before and during the election campaign, Scott Morrison and the Coalition delivered no clear message. Howard especially condemned the rampant factionalism and disunity in the Liberal Party throughout Australia. In comparison, in the 2022 election, the Greens performed strongly, winning three additional seats in the lower house. Hence there are now twelve Greens in the Senate and four in the House of Representatives. The Nationals also polled well, retaining all their MPs in the lower house.

In explaining why the Coalition lost, Howard also points to a time factor. Although Morrison had been Prime Minister for less than four years, the Coalition had been in office for nine. As Howard explains, “That was longer than the Fraser Government, the Rudd-Gillard Government and … the Whitlam Government.” There was, he writes, “a portion of the electorate that had normally voted Liberal but, for a combination of reasons, was unhappy with the Morrison Government. The most frequently asserted reason for their disaffection was climate change.” 

While these disaffected voters, in six previously safe Liberal seats, couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Anthony Albanese, they found a convenient repository in half a dozen supposedly independent “teal” candidates. Hence, as Howard writes with some passion, “in Kooyong, they ejected Josh Frydenberg, the former government’s stand-out performer. He had not only been an excellent Treasurer, but a diligent local member.” 

Howard also agrees that the former Prime Minister “mishandled some issues specifically involving women”. This damaged Morrison’s image with female voters, many of whom may have been previous Liberal voters. One of Morrison’s most egregious actions was his parliamentary attack in October 2020 on Christine Holgate, the CEO of Australia Post, saying that she must go. This followed revelations that, in November 2018, four Australia Post executives had been gifted Cartier watches. Yet, as Howard writes, Holgate was “a highly successful professional woman respected in the business community who, on any fair analysis, had not done anything wrong”. Morrison’s verbal assault, he continues, “had the appearance of the Prime Minister using his office to bully Holgate into resigning”.

Morrison made two other major mistakes. The first, which could not be mentioned in A Sense of Balance, occurred during the height of the Covid pandemic. As was revealed after Howard’s book had been written, Morrison had instructed the Governor-General, David Hurley, to appoint him to five additional ministries. This astounding fact was kept secret from most of Morrison’s cabinet, federal MPs, and the public.

The second was Morrison verbally attacking his Liberal colleague Andrew Laming in federal parliament. This was after the Nine network in late March 2021 falsely accused the Queensland MP of taking, for his own gratification, an “upskirt” photograph of a woman at her Brisbane workplace. Morrison accused Laming of “disgraceful conduct”, effectively destroying his political career. In mid-September this year, Laming won a defamation action against Nine which not only apologised for incorrect allegations about sexual impropriety, but paid him substantial damages. Laming has also received apologies from a number of other media and politicians, but not from Morrison.

All in all, I thoroughly concur with Howard that the single largest failure of the Coalition led by Scott Morrison was that it did not present to the electorate “a clear policy manifesto for the future”. If, as Howard himself believes, politics is primarily a battle of ideas, then, as he writes, “beyond the quite imaginative housing policy released a week before the election, there was no stark policy theme highlighting differences between the then government and opposition”.

This meant that the Coalition was left asserting that it should be elected on its record in the areas of economic management and national security. As Howard points out, there was also “the danger that black swan events might sabotage that approach”. Two weeks before the May 2022 election, this statement proved true, with a 5.1 per cent inflation figure coupled with a rise in interest rates. Equally, if not more, damaging was the unexpected security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, which undermined the Morrison government’s credentials in this area.

As Howard rightly concludes, for at least five years the Coalition had “baulked at any major economic reform, preferring to rely on the generalised claim … that it has been a better economic manager in government”. But such an approach “always had a shelf life, and it was reached at the last election”. Hence his advice to the Liberal and National parties is clear, and direct. At the next federal election, the Coalition “must present a substantial economic plan”, which at a minimum addresses taxation and industrial relations. 

Throughout this intriguing book, Mr Howard argues that a sense of balance is one of the defining characteristics of Australia and the Australian peoples. Although I disagree with this proposition, I am at one with him when he expresses a quiet hope that, no matter what pressures and extremes may face us in the future, our country’s institutions have the capacity to remain robust and lasting. But, as he lucidly explains, this can only happen if we preserve the bedrock of Australia as a truly democratic and tolerant nation. 

The older he gets, the better our second-longest-serving Prime Minister becomes as a writer and a contributor to public life. In the years since he ceased to serve in federal parliament, he has contributed mightily to the national discourse. Long may this continue.

A Sense of Balance
by John Howard
Harper Collins, 2022, 304 pages, $39.99

Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. His most recent publication is My Last Drink: 32 Stories of Recovering Alcoholics, co-edited with Neal Price and published by Connor Court

33 thoughts on “A Balanced Prime Minister

  • sabena says:

    I agree that there was no “clear policy manifesto for the future”
    But if you are to articulate a manifesto,you have to have a clear set of beliefs.
    There is no evidence that Morrison ever had such beliefs-he only demonstrated a belief in obtaining power.That was the problem for Turnbull,Hewson Peacock & Snedden as well.Malcolm Fraser’s problem was that he changed his beliefs.

    • Simon says:

      As usual Sabena, you hit the nail on the head. All Morrison was ever concerned about was his polling. He was totally bereft of actual beliefs, and it showed almost daily.

  • Tony Tea says:

    Electoral gravity.
    Morrison, even if his government was a good one, was asking for 12 years, which is historically a long time in Aussie politics. Albo got his timing right.

  • brennan1950 says:

    Holgate and Laming spot on. Why leave out the SAS?

  • Paul W says:

    Morrison believed in nothing and said even less about it. And why did the author refer to Australian peoples? There’s only one Australian people.

  • alexblok says:

    About halfway through this review, it should read “1.4 million” Chinese in Australia. Able already to mobilise votes very effectively, as Howard found out in 2007 and even 1987.
    Here on the north shore in May, the only booth won by the Teal was in central Chatswood, aka Chinwood. Teals had played neutral on Taiwan.
    So should be interesting if our great ally starts another war.

    • Farnswort says:

      It needs to be remembered that Howard ramped up immigration to “Big Australia” levels during his final years in power. This was done at the behest of the business lobby and without any real public consultation. Subsequent governments have maintained immigration at extremely high levels (around three times the historical average). Unlike previous immigration waves from Europe, this new influx is mainly from Asia and the non-Western world.

      Running a nation-altering mass immigration program is strange behaviour from a so-called conservative.

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    JWS got rolled by that lightweight Maxine McKew for he was past it, simple as that. At a year or so younger than he, I have seen that happen time and time again, a great person and manager stays too long so they have to be tapped on the shoulder and gently reminded that it is time to retire so it’s best to go out whilst in front or be a laughingstock like a certain presidential incumbent. An indication of his slipping was in urging a certain minister for water to remain in politics and not backing TA to the hilt as he could have done and should have done. One supposes that all in all his good outweighed his “bad” but many of we conservative electors have resigned from the LNP and will never return for they have lost the plot.

    • Trenmar says:

      I’m looking forward to the day that Howard’s contribution to the chaos that followed the election loss to Rudd. If he had handed over leadership to Costello in a timely manner we might have avoided the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd fiasco. And then of course there are the stories that Turnbull was persuaded by Howard to stay in parliament after he lost the leadership to Abbott. Had Howard stayed out of it we would have the mess of Turnbull and Morrison.

  • Edwina says:

    Little Johny was responsible for disarming us!
    For that I will never forgive him.
    He took away the guns of law abiding citizens, the criminals of course still have theirs, the Special Forces in each state, Victoria and the ACT being the standout thugs, are all armed to the teeth. He made it difficult for farmers to own theirs with onerous and foolish rules.
    To put it bluntly all the WRONG people own guns now.
    Howard was influenced and enamoured by his RINO bestie George Bush!
    ….AND unbelievably he approves of the corrupt and sleazy Biden over Donald. That alone tells me ALL I need to know.
    He is therefore supportive of the Swamp and in the end a traitor, signing us up to countless UN treaties. He gave us Turnbull in charge of water to destroy the Murray Darling Basin.
    I am sorry to say it but there is a lot there not to like?

    • Charles says:

      Amen to everything you say Edwina, I couldn’t have put it better myself.

    • Watchman Williams says:

      Well done, Edwina.
      John Howard was also PM Malcolm Fraser’s Treasurer, when interest rates were 20+% and the top personal marginal tax rate was 60%. His performance in Treasury made his successor, Paul Keating, look like Superman.
      It has become quite common for Liberal Prime Ministers in retirement to manifest values, opinions and beliefs that were not acted out during their time in office. Fraser, for example, was a raging left winger in retirement;Turnbull, a Green left ratbag. In this book, John Howard seeks to portray himself as a Conservative, but he was anything but, while in office.

  • Farnswort says:

    “Hence his advice to the Liberal and National parties is clear, and direct. At the next federal election, the Coalition “must present a substantial economic plan”, which at a minimum addresses taxation and industrial relations.”

    The country is in state of decay, yet Howard wants to focus on taxation policy like it was still the 1980s or early 1990s.

    The Coalition needs policies that address housing affordability and cost of living pressures facing working and middle class Australians. It needs policies that will encourage sustainable wage growth and help younger people afford a home of their own. It needs serious policies that will fix Australia’s energy woes. And the Coalition needs to start fighting the culture wars.

  • thebrae1 says:

    Many wheat growers like myself despise Howard because of what he did to the iconic grower controlled wheat marketer AWB Ltd in the so called Iraq Oil for Food saga. Instead of supporting the interests of Australia and its wheat growers,he cow towed to the US Wheat Associates and set in place a direction which eventually led to the abolition of our iconic single desk marketing legislation and the destruction of AWB LTD.
    Our industry is now run by foreign mega grain cartels and huge American Cargil ended up owning our icon AWB Ltd.
    Needless to say,we now have the cheapest wheat in the world and have lost our reputation for quality and service.
    Howard is a zealot and typical of the urban political elite that run this nation,the large majority of whom have never run a business and are political time servers.

    • Edwina says:

      thebrae 1, Howard and the “urban political elite” (and the rural ones!) you speak of are also traitors.
      They have no compunction nor have any guilt selling out farmers and others.
      I can think of dozens of ways this has been done just off the top of my head.
      I have reached the stage where I despise them.

  • thebrae1 says:

    Many wheat growers like myself despise Howard because of what he did to the iconic grower controlled wheat marketer AWB Ltd in the so called Iraq Oil for Food saga. Instead of supporting the interests of Australia and its wheat growers,he cow towed to the US Wheat Associates and set in place a direction which eventually led to the abolition of our iconic single desk marketing legislation and the destruction of AWB LTD.
    Our industry is now run by foreign mega grain cartels and huge American Cargil ended up owning our icon AWB Ltd.
    Needless to say,we now have the cheapest wheat in the world and have lost our reputation for quality and service.
    Howard is a zealot and typical of the urban political elite that run this nation,the large majority of whom have never run a business and are political time servers.

  • thebrae1 says:

    I have a cold hatred for them too Edwina.
    We continue to sell off huge tracts of our farmlands to foreign interests including state owned enterprises and foreign statutory pension funds.
    We are also selling off our processing such as abattoirs and dairy factories and also our rural merchandising .
    Many of our intensive feeding enterprises such as cattle feedlots are also foreign owned.
    I believe that the Liberal Party and Labor are equally culpable and even some of the Nationals are as guilty.
    Barnaby Joyce is a voice in the wilderness as we have would expect him to be .

  • STD says:

    “Australia is open for business”. A lot of Business Jets at Mascot ,my father reliably informs me post the Howard victory.
    Ross could you ask Prime Minister Howard who these people were and what were their instructions to him.
    It is my belief that John Howard conned Australia- immigration at record levels. Who is telling us to take these people?
    Having said all that I did vote for and felt comfortable with Howard in office.
    We all know why they won’t give the Australian people a say when it comes to immigration- they have been complicit with the Labor party in the destruction, and dismantling of Australia and her culture.
    Bob Santamaria was on the money ,that the global agenda was a greater risk and threat to our immediate sovereignty than the other demonic force of communism.

  • thebrae1 says:

    The Unions sorted him out with his zealotry when he floated his work choices policy !
    Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke!

    • STD says:

      The unions are part of the reason we are unproductive and uncompetitive, which gave birth to Work Choices. Australians are Lazy, greedy and dishonest. Work choices design was to break the unionised monopoly. The unions now have their noses in the trough called superannuation – another scam just like the climate change come global warming clowns. We used to get interest on savings, now we pay someone else to borrow our money to make their living- the whole thing is one big scam from top to the very bottom, the banking Royal Commission confirmed this societal psyche.

  • thebrae1 says:

    Howard and Turnbull also set up the Murray Darling Basin plan debacle whereby we have have billions of litres of precious irrigation water flowing out to sea and ruining the rivers in the guise of environmentalism.
    We didn’t even need a Labor government to give birth to this economic vandalism because the Liberal city elites did it for them.

    • STD says:

      The Murray Darling basin plan is all about opening up the water resources of this country to global Corporates. The only people who will be able to afford to irrigate will be large global farming conglomerates, who will run family run enterprises out of business- another scam – there ain’t much of the silverware left to sell!

  • Mark says:

    Can we please stop referring to John Howard as some conservative hero? Can someone actually point to me of something he (and the Liberal Party) have actually conserved?
    As noted by many of the comments above, John Howard basically introduced mass third world immigration (who in the latest election, 80% of the 1.5 million Chinese in Australia turned to Labor due to perceived anti Chinese bias of the LNP) against the wishes of the majority of the then white population, introduced draconian gun control laws (which may have been supported by a significant portion of the electorate but not the conservative portion) and shamefully sent us to war in Iraq which posed literally no threat to us at all. He also supported ethnostate Israel unapologetically (his words) but jailed Pauline Hanson and tried to destroy One Nation.
    His neo-liberal economic policy and neo-conservative foreign policy of open borders, gun control, interventionist foreign policy, economic deregulation and globalism has permanently scarred Australia into an irreversible demographic transformation all the while pretending to be a “conservative”.
    Read Pat Buchanan and Paul Gottfried for what real conservatism is, not faux conservatism of John Howard and George Bush.

    • STD says:

      Good stuff.
      I think it was One Tony Abbott who was at least complicit, if not partially responsible for what happened to that poor woman and her protege.
      The Pauline Hanson jailing was a direct signal to our northern neighbours that we will put a lid on this immigration discontent.
      One thing about Pauline Hanson ,she may not have the smarts of some of the other politicians ,but to the best of my instinct and knowledge, she is bloody honest and that will do me.

      • Mark says:

        Pauline Hanson is a hero and deserves conservative votes, not the LNP. Tony Abbott actually personally contributed $10,000 to the legal fund to prosecute her on a dubious technicality. With conservative friends like these, who needs enemies?

        • Farnswort says:

          Yep, the best thing conservatives can do is park their votes with Pauline and Mark Latham. With the exception of a few Coalition senators, the Liberal Party doesn’t deserve support from conservatives.

  • Edwina says:

    There really is not much to like on our side of politics and there hasn’t been for a very long time.
    It is a God given they will betray us and that betrayal coming from within always seems more loathsome.
    I can’t think of much they haven’t betrayed us on! They even introduced a bill to ban the live sheep trade!

  • Occidental says:

    I have not read the book and only skated through this article, but how does he deal with Iraq and Afghanistan? He put us into both those theaters, and whilst Iraq seems to forever define Tony Blairs Prime ministership, it seems Australians are, to paraphrase the Howard “relaxed” about it. Oh well the truth is Howard knew his electorate.

  • Daffy says:

    Holgate should have gone. Someone who thought a Cartier watch was a worthy gift to anyone is not of the Right Stuff. Cartier, for heaven’s sake? How gauche, how ‘of the middling type’. For an executive either a bang up lunch and the afternoon off, or a nice Patek Philippe, perhaps a Grande Complication, they’re pretty good and quite understated.

    BTW, a pal got a Cartier in Hong Kong a couple of decades ago for a song…back street on Kowloon side somewhere. Seemed to work pretty well.

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