Both of my parents come from relatively poor families and, as far as I am aware, were unionised for the main part of their working lives. Whilst not so leftist that they're playing in the leafy fringes with the Greens, they could, quite reliably, be described as Labor lefties, with that little bit of swing that Labor so often encourages with its own political ineptitude. It is no surprise then, that as a child, I was conditioned to hate John Howard.
During my high school years, when I started to form a more thoughtful political opinion and Howard's caterpillar eyebrows started to crawl their way out of my TV, my relationship with Howard underwent somewhat of a renaissance. This was no surprise; most high school students start to challenge the beliefs fed to them by their parents, and I was certainly one to do this. I started asking myself the logical question. If Howard were so bad, why is Australia doing all right? This dominated my thinking for a while and I started blurting out the Howard mantra: his government was a stable one, so he was a good PM.
This mantra is very largely true; at least the first part. His government was pretty stable and Howard was certainly very Prime Ministerial. The latter really isn't much of a surprise. After all, he for so long had front row seats observing Hawke and Keating doing it so well.
All in all, I remembered him then as someone who you wouldn't exactly be ashamed of sending overseas. I still maintain that he was one of the most skilled Prime Ministers at making himself look important beyond his station. He was always strong and decisive, and you could not deny the extent of his self-confidence. These made him a very attractive figure and encouraged people to feel safe with him. He also encouraged a more presidential view of the Prime Minister with these qualities. Good things, though these are, my view of Howard is no longer dominated by them as I have started to—well—think.
So after all of this banging on, how do I feel about Howard now?
John Howard is one of the few people whose name alone can make me angry and sick at the same time. And I really do mean that. It's a foreign experience for me, but it's one I've developed of late as I've started to read more broadly about Australian politics.
Howard's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are often the greatest source of criticism of his Prime Ministership. That is hardly surprising at all, as war tends to have a very polarising effect. It is a time in which our "sensible" and "smart" governments behave like children and sort their differences with violence; the result of which, unlike the children, is often death for many involved.
The truth of the matter is though, that these wars, and Howard's enthusiasm for them in particular, say a lot about John Howard as a man. He was nothing short of a war-mongering megalomaniac who wanted nothing more from life than to be seen as a war time leader. In fact, he very much would have liked the idea of being seen like Winston Churchill, who despite his equally despicable character flaws, is almost universally revered as a hero for his efforts in World War II.
Unlike Churchill, Howard struggled to find his Adolf, and thus had to be a bit more creative with his searching. Fortunately for him, George Bush was in power in the United States and liked nothing more than a bit of Arab bashing (with perhaps the exception of fishin'). And thus, hand in hand, two xenophobic, near-senile geriatrics led their countries into the Middle East for ten years of Where's Osama?
Whether or not these wars were worthwhile is the subject of fierce debate. I do not have anywhere near enough knowledge to even throw my opinion into the ring, other than to say that they were not conducted properly—blind Freddy could tell you that though! What they did show was Howard's propensity for war. He loved it; he revelled in it. At the same time, Australian's loved him for it. Despite their opposition to war, Howard was never more popular than when he was off around the world waging his war on terror. Perhaps Australians were reaching into their racist roots, perhaps they just liked Howard out of the country—either way, war time Howard was what Howard loved and was Australians seemed to love too.
War time Howard didn't stop with Afghanistan and Iraq. It is this fact about Howard that I think better illustrates my point: he was only happy at war. Howard's (and Bush's) self-serving war on terror didn't just involve overthrowing Saddam Hussein and their over-sized game of hide-and-seek with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (of course with the odd spot of target practice on the Taliban), he started to turn domestic issues into war. Most notable was Howard's war against asylum seeker, which remarkably did end up involving the armed forces.
Asylum seekers were never really a "thing" in Australia prior to Howard's time in power. They did however represent an enormous political opportunity for his government. With the Western World up in arms about terrorism, the public was starting to go selfish—every man (well at very least every country) for himself. Therefore, this was the perfect time to start instructing the public on the dangers of asylum seekers, people who were fleeing persecution, violence and the most squalid conditions in the world to take over the nation!!!!!!!!! (or so the dessicated coconut kept shouting). With the crisis created from thin air, and an "invasion" of asylum seekers on its way (ironically displaced by the Bush-Howard warring in the Middle East), it was time for Howard to tell the "boat people" to fuck off from our boundless plains to share and to go rejoin their Al-Qaeda buddies in "Terrorististan". And so the myth was created: anybody fleeing from peril by boat was actually a terrorist in disguise en route to exact revenge on the infidels of the West.
Ludicrous beyond belief, this myth was well and truly in Hanson territory. Sadly, despite the cries from everyone with a working brain, the Australian public lapped this up and lit the torches. We now had to stop these illegal aliens at all costs. And so was evoked this line: "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come". Howard's smuggery was so great that he managed to juxtapose Australia's "generosity and kindness" onto this section of his victory speech.
With these words died a compassionate nation. In the minds of Australians who still maintain their empathy, and probably a healthy dose of that rage and enthusiasm Gough spoke about, this was one of the most contemptible things Howard ever did in his tenure as PM. I agree. More importantly, so too does former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser (in this video he speaks about the current Coalition government's plans to invoke Howard's plans, dismantled by former Labor PM, Kevin Rudd).
Also notable of Howard's era was his war against public schools. Apparently he had despised his time at public school so much, he made it his personal objective to keep swinging the cricket bat into them until they were well and truly ratfucked. Sadly for the public system, Howard played much better figurative cricket than real cricket and had indeed left it in ruins.
In order to cripple students who couldn't afford the "privilege" of education, Howard introduced the so-called SES funding system. Rather than bore you with the details, the SES funding system, in effect, increased the government funding for private schools to a point where non-government schools were in receipt of significantly more money (before student fees) than public schools. Furthermore, the SES system provided for loadings for students who were disadvantaged. Therefore, if a student were found to live in a disadvantaged suburb (rural, low socioeconomic blah blah), in spite of their personal circumstances, the school would receive extra funding for taking that student. Sounds great, right? The catch was that it only applied to private schools. Public schools got the base and beyond that, two fifths of fuck all.
The effect of this was to expand the already increasing gap in academic performance between private and public schools. Naturally, this effect rolls on and cements low socioeconomic status for those children unfortunate enough to find themselves in that exact position from birth. In a matter of weeks, Howard had written and passed the legislation to effectively end the era of the fair-go, ushering in the era of the "cheque please". Smug as ever, Howard donated to each school a free Australian flag—and legislation to make it illegal to not have it flying—because there was nothing quite like that raising the next generation of Arab-haters.
Sadly, Howard is often lauded as a creative and brilliant economic manager, who presided over one of the strongest periods in the Australian economy. There is no doubt that Howard presided over a strong period, the numbers certainly state that. There is also no doubt that, through his treasurer Peter Costello, Howard was able to ensure the market was free enough to get on with its business. The reality of the matter though was that this wasn't a lot of Howard's work, and casting a close eye over his economic management, it wasn't quite as good as suggested.
Mining was going gangbusters during Howard's years, bringing to Australia unforeseen amounts of cash, much of which was injected into government coffers. Peter Costello was pumping out surplus after surplus through a combo of the mining boom (obviously) and his propensity for fiscal management, which is undeniable.
How then, did Howard use his stacks of cash? Well first of all, he blew quite a bit of it on defence. Nothing says war time leader like going hunting through the Middle East with your mate, George, or buying some shiny new helicopters and tanks (an area of government that had its own minister, Bronwyn "La Bish" Bishop).
In the Liberal fashion, he blew most of the mining boom on tax cuts to the higher classes and to business. It could be argued that the former did go a way to help the mining boom along—in any case, I don't have the economic brains to counter argue it. The latter was just another part in Howard's crusade against the poor.
Lastly, Howard pumped the rest of the cash into middle-class welfare. After years of Labor government, the welfare system had been set up on the socialist model, or at least on the social democratic model (give to the poor so then they can invest in becoming rich like the rest). This didn't go down well with Howard, but he couldn't dispense with welfare for purely political reasons, so instead, decided to pump more into the hip pockets of people who really didn't need it: the middle class. What the point of that welfare was would always be difficult to describe in economic terms; politically, it was a mass bribe. On a small side note, it must be noted that neither Rudd nor Gillard had the ticker to take away the middle-class welfare because both were more interested in pursuing their lifestyles as demagogues, rather than pragmatists.
The result of all of Howard's ridiculous spending (which has since been described by leading economists as some of the most irresponsible spending by a government in the history of the OECD) was to throw away almost all of the mining boom and to reduce the country's capacity to collect any revenue from it anyway. Apparently it was lost on Howard that there isn't an infinite supply of minerals nor is the demand for them infinite, and thus, he kept on trying to increase an already finite volume of minerals to be mined through tax cuts. In fact, the only notable tax he introduced was the GST, which selectively taxes the people before business and is considered by most to avoid any sort of consideration about equity and fairness. No doubt it was a gutsy political decision, but somewhat paradoxically, he avoided the aforementioned issues of equity and fairness in an act of cowardice.
Cruelly, much of what Tony Abbott decries about Labor's economic management is far more applicable to the Howard years. Not to say that Labor was perfect—they weren't—but Howard was far more an irresponsible spender and was extremely foolish with his approach to taxation. Because of Howard and his government, Tony Abbott has inherited an economy with a tax base that is far too small and a polity that is far too obsessed with big spending on welfare and tax cuts. It will take an extraordinary amount of political leadership to address these problems, something that Abbott lacks.
So, where are we left on Howard?
He started the asylum seeker myth, creating a cruel and indefensible culture of xenophobia. He war mongered all across West Asia, contributing to a massive destablisation of the region. He launched a crusade against the poor, destroying their public schools and making it harder-than-ever to close the gap. He blew Australia's best chance of setting its economy up to bear future (now) challenges.
Even more terribly, there's much I've left out. He started the culture wars against everyone and everything. He demonised Islam. He was uniquely cruel to Indigenous Australians, refusing point blank to accept that his forebears committed unspeakable crimes (where's the "boat people" speech now, John?). He trashed the environment, and along with Nick Minchin, created a culture of pigheaded irreverence to the science of climate change.
This leaves me with the difficult task of characterising Howard. It is no easy feat.
John Howard is a callous, conniving megalomaniac. His political career was directed by his obsession with power, which was only outdone by his obsession with pursuing the image of a "war time leader". Nearly every move he made was a new war against another helpless target. The war against terror, the war against boat people, the war against public schools, the indigenous, the unemployed, the gay and anybody who so happened to be subject his erratic whims.
John Howard was so uncompromising in his opinions that he could nigh be accurately described as being completely delusional. His insatiable hunger for war was borderline psychopathic, and I say with some confidence that in any member of the general public, it would be diagnosed as such. He is a moral conservative, with not so much as an ounce of the moral and yet a tonne of the conservative.
John Howard's legacy will long remain one of xenophobia, economic impotence and a complete absence of humanity. He is rightly despised by members on both sides of politics, and he is rightly despised by me.
John Howard, this is your life.