Peter Smith

John Howard book launch

UPDATE: November 2, 2010 – Counterpoint broadcast a recording of John Howard’s Quadrant dinner speech on Radio National. Listen below.

I am not well-credentialed when it comes to Quadrant dinners. When I started going maybe eighteen months ago I formed the impression that there had been a history stretching into the past of which I knew little. At the same time, newcomer though I was, I felt at ease. Here was a group of people knowledgeable about and comfortable with Australia’s past and its heritage. I also felt not too old; there were plenty of chaps and gals older than me.

Last Friday’s dinner changed the dynamic a good deal. The comfort of the old was still there but there was a ‘rock star’ in our midst. This swelled the numbers to a record 160 and considerably lowered the average age of attendees. Youngish people were everywhere. I began to feel older again. Cheering took the place of polite handclapping.

Mr John Howard, former prime minister extraordinaire, was Quadrant-launching his biography Lazarus Rising. Keith Windschuttle set the scene by quoting John Stone: “our greatest prime minister”; Alan Jones: our finest prime minister; James Morrow: “our great living prime minister”; and John Stone again: “stands comparison with Thatcher and Reagan in forcing opponents to shift ground”. You have to say this was a hard introduction to live up to. Mr Howard did not miss a beat.

A punchy presentation followed. He took us through his book, main chapter by main chapter. He read his speech. There was no artifice about secret notes. You would think it might have been a bit dry. It wasn’t. Mr Howard also knows when to stop. It is that empathy which stood him so well in office. While his opponents were trying to think up some ideological play he was busy trying to understand the needs of the electorate. It must have driven them mad and we all saw that it often did.

Keith reminded questioners not to make speeches. I wonder why he thought it was necessary to say that? Verbosity, prolixity, circumlocution among the Quadrant faithful – surely not.

Questions were wide-ranging and, of course, not just from the usual suspects. There was the hint of an intake of breath at my table when one questioner asked Mr Howard why his book was so titled. Generally I think you would be hard put to ask a political trivial pursuit question at Quadrant dinners without everyone’s hand going up. How Arthur but for Jim might have done Robert in – who is Jim? Who messed up with Sheridan sheets? Whose split skirt caused a stir? And so on into obscurity – there would be no lack of hands.

One question was about growing suburban congestion with maybe perhaps the merest hint of a racial reference. You could hear and sense the disquiet in the room. Howard as usual just took the substance of the question on its merits and extolled the benefits of strong immigration.

As Howard went on answering question after question with assurance and aplomb, I thought of Churchill defeated in 1945 coming back as prime minister in 1951 aged 77. Mr Howard seems a lot fitter than Churchill was in 1931 never mind 1951. Was a quadruple by-pass possible? I thought of asking this question but the question queue kept filling up.

It is often the case that we don’t appreciate what we have until it is gone and we must make do with something less. Some part of the esteem in which Howard is held has, no doubt, to do with the lesser-lights that have followed him into the prime ministership. A Hawke or even a Keating may bear at least some comparison but a Rudd and a Gillard? Was it just me or could I sense in the room wonderment that Howard could have been undone by so unworthy and inferior foes. Of course, it comes down those half a million or so voters who swing from one side or the other based on flimsy evidence or the glitter of the new. It is called democracy.

When he was asked about his defeat he put it down to the ‘it’s time’ factor and to the one major political mistake he admits to. That was to remove the no disadvantage test in work choices. Against that were massed the achievements of a competent and reforming government – the liberation of East Timor, all but stopping illegal immigration, growing prosperity, no net public sector debt, tax and industrial relations reform, and that important and vital waterfront reform. He quipped that the 1954 movie On the Waterfront was a favourite of his.

After all of this – then defeated overall by a seemingly unappreciative electorate (though I’m sure that would never cross his mind) and in his own seat by an ABC apparatchik – there is no rancour in the man. It is extraordinary.

One instance always sticks in my mind. During the period of whipped up outrage over David Hick’s plight, Howard was asked about criticism that Hick’s father was levelling at him. He responded by reminding the interviewer that it was Hick’s father and of course he supported his son. He made no further comment. There was no sense in which he was out to score points. He simply appreciated that a father would support his son.

Mr Howard was convincing in every question he answered because he didn’t have to think up the answer each time or resort to some silly mindless cliché. He knows where he stands and doesn’t have to make it up as he goes along. Maybe if we wait long enough another prime minister of his stature will emerge. Don’t bank on this happening anytime soon.

Will Quadrant dinners to come be as riveting or as well-attended? Who knows? Maybe soon I will be part of the old crowd as youngish people jostle for a table.

Listen to the Counterpoint recording of John Howard’s Quadrant dinner speech here…

Audio of John Howard responding to questions from the audience is here…

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