Extract from John Kunkel – “A Speechwriter’s View” in The Howard Era (Quadrant Books):
When it came to the culture wars, John Howard and I never really discussed how to portray “the Left”. The speech for the fiftieth anniversary of Quadrant magazine in 2006 became ridiculously overanalysed as a statement of Howard’s supposedly ideological bent. All it did was recount the sorry record of the Left—at home and abroad—during the Cold War.
Our targets included Manning Clark and Doc Evatt’s former foreign affairs Svengali, John Burton. To my amazement, Burton (who I thought was dead) wrote an angry letter to the Canberra Times in which he attacked the “fascist” Menzies government and basically substantiated our main charges. Another singular achievement of that speech was having a frustrated David Marr (in a subsequent debate with Gerard Henderson) describe Manning Clark as no more than a fringe academic.
One of the eye-opening things I encountered was the degree to which people who supposedly report national politics didn’t pay much attention to what the Prime Minister actually said. The case of indigenous affairs was a good example. Some who did listen, like Noel Pearson, started to appreciate where John Howard was coming from. This, in turn, helped develop one of the more interesting relationships in the latter part of the Howard years.
I recall once joking with Howard about what a coincidence it was that those who were regarded as “public intellectuals” in Australia were invariably of the Left. We both readily agreed that Noel Pearson was in fact a person who could genuinely be called Australia’s leading public intellectual in that his ideas were new, challenging, and confronted the real issues confronting the nation.
Did John Howard have political heroes? To the extent he did, the Quadrant speech singled them out as Reagan and Thatcher, together with Pope John Paul II. I don’t think he ever looked for heroes though. His appreciation of Reagan certainly grew over time. I think we both thought, however, that Thatcher is in some ways even more significant, given the task she confronted in Britain in the late 1970s.
It’s fair to say that by 2007 it became increasingly difficult to “freshen up” the Howard brand and to gain political traction through speeches. More than once, we pondered how to get people to listen again.
As usual, John Howard’s instinct was to take an issue on directly. With climate change, for example, he decided to challenge the notion that it should be elevated to the “moral challenge of our time”, recognising that the same crowd who ran this line would have spoken about indigenous disadvantage in the same terms the week before. We tried to highlight the inevitability of trade-offs and sought to make the moral case for economic growth and social mobility—ensuring a bright kid from a disadvantaged background could get ahead—as being just as relevant as ever. For this we were rewarded with the headline in the Daily Telegraph: “PM cool on climate”.
John Kunkel was John Howard’s speechwriter from January 2004 to December 2007.
Read the full text in:
The Howard Era
Essays edited by Keith Windschuttle,
David Martin Jones & Ray Evans
Published December 2009, 538 pages
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