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