Extract from Tony Abbott – “Inside the Howard Cabinet” published in The Howard Era (Quadrant Books):
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.
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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