December 2010 - January 2011

Arts & Letters

Man of Wood

By Robert Manne
John Howard and his wife Janette wave to the audience at the launch of the Liberal Party's doomed election campaign, Brisbane, 12 November 2007. © William West / AFP / Getty Images
Robert Manne on John Howard’s ‘Lazarus Rising’

Having wrestled with this long and boring book for six entire days, I was astonished when I finally realised how little I had discovered about John Howard or his government. Apart perhaps for Howard’s version of his testy relationship with Peter Costello, there is in Lazarus Rising almost no information or interpretation of events that is both new and important. For someone who has followed Australian politics attentively over the past 30 years, the Howard memoir is crushingly familiar.

There are however things about the tone of the memoir that did slightly surprise. I did not anticipate that Howard would be quite so humourless. Over almost 700 pages, I chuckled only twice. The first time was in a story he told about the Labor speaker of the house, Jim Cope, following his removal by Whitlam. There were two candidates for his replacement – Gordon Scholes for Labor, Geoff Giles for the Liberals. During the secret ballot Cope called out loudly in the house: “How do you spell Giles?” The second time was unintended by the author. Howard tells us that Australia followed the United States into Iraq on the basis of false American intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. He then tells us that one of the reasons we needed to follow the US into Iraq was to strengthen an alliance of which “a priceless component” was the “timely and accurate intelligence” it provided. Apparently Howard hadn’t noticed the problem.

I was also somewhat surprised by the undisguised quality of Howard’s boasting. Howard tells us, for example, that the budget he and Peter Costello brought down in 1996 was “the best and bravest in 25 years”. He tells us that at the end of his first ten months in office the “path [was] set for a greater level of national self-belief and international respect”. He tells us that as a result of his courageous handling of the issue of gun control following the tragedy of Port Arthur, he “had passed a very important character test”. He tells us that “it was one of the signal triumphs of Australian foreign policy under the Howard Government that … Australia built even closer relations with our Asian neighbours whilst reasserting the traditional intimacy of our links with Washington and London.” The title he chooses for his chapter on the economic achievements of his government is “A Wonder Down Under”. Howard once, inferentially at least, asked us to believe that he was a modest man. He is now puffed up with pride. In his overt self-regard he now more closely resembles his anti-hero, Gough Whitlam, than his hero, Robert Menzies.

Given that Howard wanted us to believe that he was not only a modest but a generous man, I was also a little surprised by the resentments he was willing to reveal about fellow Liberals. The only senior member of the Liberal Party who resolutely opposed the Howard government on any policy issue was Petro Georgiou. While, rather surprisingly, in his 700 pages Howard does not even mention Georgiou’s successful campaign to have women and children released from asylum seeker detention camps, he does find the space to recall his response to Georgiou’s unwillingness to take the parliamentary secretaryship offered him in 1996. “Who did Petro imagine he was?” Howard is not only scathing about the most prominent small-l liberal who stood up to him. During his final term, the ultra-conservative Nick Minchin criticised the supposed moderation of WorkChoices at a meeting of the HR Nicholls Society. Howard describes his speech as disloyal and naive.

Howard’s greatest hostility is, of course, reserved for Peter Costello, his only true Liberal Party rival during his time in government. On the one hand he describes Costello as the best treasurer in Australian history and as a superb parliamentary performer. On the other he describes him as an elitist out of touch with the values of ordinary Australians, and as someone whose arrogance and unwillingness to offer assistance or to listen gradually alienated his party’s backbench. Howard not only disputes Costello’s claim that in 1994 they agreed that Howard would hand him the prime ministership after two terms, he treats the claim as displaying a characteristically impertinent sense of entitlement. He does not merely regard Costello’s willingness to allow the story of the supposed 1994 deal to leak as displaying rank amateurishness, he endorses Neil Mitchell’s judgement of Costello as a childish whiner. By the end of the memoir, the stature of the man described as Australia’s greatest treasurer has been considerably diminished by a cunning and sustained personal and political character assassination.

The Howard who emerges from these pages is not only prideful and subtly vindictive but also remarkably unthoughtful. Howard describes the Whitlam government as nothing but “progressive social posturing”. At the same time he claims that Australia has the best health system in the world. One has to assume that it has never occurred to Howard that the single most important aspect of Whitlam’s progressive social posturing – and the one that conventional conservatives like Howard most bitterly opposed – was precisely the modern Australian health system that the Whitlam government pioneered. A similar unwillingness to reflect on the history of Australian conservatism occurs in the chapter on East Timor. For good reason, Howard is proud of the role his government played in its liberation. “History,” he tells us, “would record the Howard Government as having reversed a quarter of a century of Australian weakness towards Jakarta in relation to East Timor.” Howard seems incapable of seeing the implications of this judgement for the reputation of Australian anti-communists, the informal grouping to which he (and I) once belonged. In the very chapter in which Howard takes pride in having reversed a quarter century of weakness over Indonesia, he recalls how “moving” it was when, as leader of the Opposition in the mid 1980s, he visited the home of one of the “anti-communist heroes” slain by pro-communist forces in 1965. In the Indonesian events of 1965 a handful of anti-communists were killed. Following their deaths, in one of the most terrible mass murders of postwar world history, between 500,000 and a million suspected communists were slaughtered. Howard is proud to have reversed Australian thinking over acquiescence to Jakarta’s brutality in East Timor. He simply cannot see that the conventional anti-communist interpretation of an even vaster Indonesian crime might also need revision.

This thoughtlessness also pervades the discussion of key elements of his time as prime minister. Howard often describes his underlying philosophy as the combination of economic liberalism and social conservatism. On scores of occasions critics of his government have pointed to an obvious contradiction. The bedrock of social conservatism is stable family, neighbourhood and community; the implication of economic liberalism is an unrestrained capitalism destructive of all three. On many occasions Howard sings sentimental hymns in praise of family. Equally he favours the colonisation of daily life by the market, telling us, for example, in his defence of WorkChoices, that we are “inexorably moving in the direction of a 24-hour day, seven-day-week economy”. Not only does Howard not try to reconcile his social conservatism and his economic liberalism, he does not even acknowledge any problem. A similar kind of thoughtlessness is found in his discussion of the apology to the Stolen Generations. Howard tells us in a single sentence: “I would never embrace the artificiality of a formal apology for the simple reason that the only person or government which can give an effective apology is the original perpetrator.” Many commentators have pointed out that the American president has apologised for the practice of slavery and the German president for the Holocaust. Howard’s “simple reason” is contradicted by contemporary ethical practice and understanding. What then is the intellectual foundation of his certainty about the impossibility or inefficacy of inter-generational state apologies? Howard does not tell us.

Howard’s memoir is not only unreflective, it is also marked throughout by blindness on questions relating to ethnicity and race. Although he now accepts that the Indigenous population was in the past treated harshly, he is altogether unwilling to concede that racism plays a role either in Australian history or contemporary Australian sensibility. Pauline Hanson became famous for her claim that Australia was being swamped by Asians and that Aborigines were the undeserving recipients of special favours from the state. Yet Howard is convinced that the vast majority of those who supported her “did not have a racist bone in their bodies”.

Twelve days after Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech in September 1996, Howard spoke to the Queensland branch of the Liberal Party. He celebrated the lifting of the yoke of Keating-style political correctness from the shoulders of the nation. Even though the media went wild following her speech – there were twice as many press references to her in that fortnight than in the six months since the election campaign – Howard is astonished that his words were interpreted as providing Hanson with “momentum”. With faux naivety he tells us: “I didn’t even mention Hanson.”

Howard’s blindness to injustice connected to ethnicity or race is frequently more indirect than such examples suggest. At the Reconciliation Convention in May 1997 he gave his customary lecture on Australian history as more than a sorry tale of racism. How can he have convinced himself that “balance” of this kind was appropriate to the audience and occasion? For very many Australians the most unforgivable offence of the early Howard years was the cruelty inflicted upon the asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran in the desert camps under the system of mandatory and indefinite detention and the indifference to their suffering. If the asylum seekers had been white they would never have been treated in this way. Concerning the question of the conditions in mandatory detention camps there is not one word in the Howard memoir. Nor is there one word about what was for very many Australians one of the more disturbing incidents of the late Howard years, the ugly anti-Muslim riot on Cronulla beach. Howard is absolutely justified in devoting a heartfelt chapter to the heinous murder of 88 Australians in the 2002 Bali terrorist attack. However, it is astonishing that in his discussion of Iraq, while he thinks it worthwhile to mention the deaths of the 4000 American soldiers, there is not one word about the 150,000 Iraqis or more whose lives were lost as a direct result of the invasion. There were many days in occupied Iraq when the death toll from sectarian or terrorist attacks exceeded 88. For his indifference to the human catastrophe resulting directly from the Coalition of the Willing’s invasion of Iraq, Howard should be known not as the Man of Steel but as the Man of Wood.

Regarding some of the more contentious episodes in the life of the Howard government, Lazarus Rising is entirely unreliable. Take as one example his discussion of the bitter waterfront dispute. In late 1997 news broke that former and current members of the Australian Defence Force were being trained as dockworkers in Dubai. In his memoir Howard tells us:

[T]his was the first time that, to my knowledge, anyone in the Government had known of it. Reith said at a press conference that he had been personally told by the two stevedoring companies that it was also news to them. It was true that Patrick [Corporation] had not been directly involved, but Corrigan was certainly aware of the Dubai operation and he believes that one of the consultants hired by the Government (not Reith’s staff) would also have been aware.

Every detail here is false. Chris Corrigan was Patrick Corporation. If Corrigan was “certainly aware” of Dubai so was Patrick. Corrigan was not merely aware of the Dubai operation. He was its architect and financier. The consultant Howard mentions, in fact Dr Stephen Webster, was put in charge of waterfront reform by the Howard government. He was not merely “aware” of Dubai. He was the one who introduced Corrigan to Mike Wells, the man who led the Dubai operation under the company Fynwest. Webster worked out of Reith’s office. When Reith told the parliament that he knew nothing about Dubai, a fellow ministerial waterfront conspirator, John Sharp, was amazed at

Reith’s fleetness of foot. And when Corrigan swore in evidence before the Industrial Relations Commission that he was not involved in the Dubai operation he did not tell the truth. Following a falling out with Corrigan, Wells released to the Age the bank statements showing the moneys Corrigan paid to Fynwest for organising Dubai. Lying to the Industrial Relations Commission constitutes perjury. As Lindsay

Tanner once pointed out in parliament, the reason why Corrigan, a hero of the Howard memoir, escaped prosecution has never been satisfactorily explained. Even if Howard is understandably pleased about the outcome of the dispute – a leaner, more productive waterfront workforce – he is not entitled to falsify its history.

Howard’s account of the children overboard affair is, if anything, even more misleading. In early October 2001, following the Tampa “crisis” and the institution of a new policy of repelling and deterring asylum seekers by military force, Howard used the story about refugees throwing their children into the ocean in order to blackmail their way into Australia to legitimise his government’s cruelty. No true refugees, he argued on talkback radio, would treat their children like this. Within days it became clear to members of Defence that there was no evidence for the story. Finally, on 7 November, Angus Houston, then the acting chief of the ADF, telephoned Peter Reith, his minister, with the information that the children overboard story was false. An election was three days away. Reith decided not to tell Howard about the phone call thus allowing Howard to tell the members of the National Press Club that he still believed the story to be true. In his memoir Howard describes Reith’s silence as perfectly “defensible”. But it was worse than this. By the time he spoke to the press club we now know that Howard himself had been told by one of Reith’s staff, Mike Scrafton, that no one in Defence believed the children overboard canard. Scrafton did not reveal his conversations with Howard until the eve of the 2004 election. When his claim was denied by Howard loyalists, Scrafton explained that on the morning following his conversations he had told a fellow public servant in Defence, Jenny McKendry, what he had done. She duly confirmed that this was so. As it happens, Scrafton made one small mistake. He thought he had spoken to Howard three times. Phone records showed that they had only spoken twice. In his memoir Howard dismisses Scafton’s damning testimony solely on this ground. He claims that the children overboard affair would not have shifted a single vote. If Howard had admitted to the truth many votes might have shifted. More importantly, the matter in contention here is not so much the outcome of the election as the honesty of the prime minister.

The most depressing chapter in the Howard memoir is the one concerning global warming. Howard makes it clear that his last-minute agreement to an emissions trading scheme was purely opportunistic. Because of the continued drought in southern Australia; the early arrival of the bushfire season; the popular impact of the “slick production”, An Inconvenient Truth, by the “arrogant and overbearing” Al Gore; and Sir Nicholas Stern’s “beguilingly simple and seductively cheap” climate change report, by late 2006, public opinion had turned over global warming. Howard is clearly delighted that since he lost office the influence of the denialist camp has grown. He now regards belief in global warming as “a substitute religion”. He thinks the adherents of this religion advance their faith through “moral bullying”. Howard has not merely returned to his earlier fantasy that it is not a price on carbon but technology, like sequestration or nuclear energy, that will solve the global warming problem. He is no longer even convinced there is a problem. Howard informs us that on the question of human causation of climate change he is not a “sceptic” but an “agnostic”. This is an interesting semantic move. While scepticism entails at least an attitude to climate science, agnosticism relocates judgement about the reality of global warming from the realm of science to the realm of personal faith. Time and again Howard tells us of how he was able to rely on his political “instincts”. Even over global warming he seems to believe they serve him well. “[I]nstinctively,” he informs us, “I doubt many of the more alarming predictions.” On global warming lesser mortals must rely not on instinct but on reason. Like so many of his peer group, right-wing ideologues in the English-speaking world, Howard believes that “mistakes discovered in the work of the International Climate Change Partnership (ICCP) have shaken the edifice” of climate change science. Howard is not even aware that the body that has been so remorselessly and unfairly attacked by the camp of the denialists is not the International Climate Change Partnership but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Paul Keating and John Howard agreed on very little. But Howard did agree, he tells us, with Keating’s famous quip: “Change the government and you change the country.” The most important question raised by Lazarus Rising concerns the way in which Australia under Howard changed. Despite reforms such as Reserve Bank independence or the GST, on the economic trajectory of the country, especially after the electorate rejected WorkChoices, Howard concedes a fundamental continuity with the Hawke and Keating years. On the nation’s cultural trajectory, however, he believes, with good reason, that a genuine transformation occurred. In his vision of an Asian-sensitive, multicultural, reconciled republic, Keating, according to Howard, undervalued “the scale of the Australian achievement” and exposed his country to a never-ending “symposium on national identity” led by “self-appointed cultural dieticians” seeking to suffocate the nation’s “self-belief” under a thick blanket of “shame and guilt”. Howard tells us he sought to resurrect the earlier “good enough” Australian self-image, which had been subverted by years of debilitating “political correctness”. He believes his government helped kill off the divisive tendencies of the multicultural agenda. He knows that he played an important role in killing off the prospect of Australia ever becoming a republic. He understands that his military solution to the problem of the arrival of asylum seeker boats was exceedingly politically popular. Over the relationship with Indigenous Australians, he is proud of the fact that under his prime ministership the aspiration to self-determination, which he mischievously re-describes in the words of the apartheid policy as “separate development”, also gradually died off. He likens Indigenous policy under his stewardship to an ocean liner slowly turning round until it was sailing back to the port his predecessors called assimilation. Howard is pleased that under his prime ministership interest in Australian history strengthened. In essence what he means by this is that the Gallipoli myth gained a firmer grip on the national imagination. He is even more pleased that with uncritical support for the US in Afghanistan and Iraq the ANZUS military alliance was strengthened. He regards it as a triumph of his foreign policy that Australia did not have to make an unnecessary choice between her history – the UK and the US – and her geography – the Asia–Pacific region. And he believes that he was able to succeed in this profound cultural transformation of his country because of the fundamental conservatism of the Australian people. Howard believes that he left Australia a better country. I believe he left it more materially comfortable but duller, more selfish, more callous and more complacent.

Howard is also aware of the deep political strategy by which this populist conservative transformation was achieved. As he suggests in Lazarus Rising, he was able to retain power for almost 12 years by winning over the aspirational “battlers” in the anti-Keating landslide of 1996; by retaining most of them after the GST stumble of 1998 until the WorkChoices crash in the election of 2007; by gradually absorbing into the support base of the Coalition the economically marginalised voters first mobilised by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party whom he always treated with fitting respect; and by exploiting for electoral gain, especially over asylum seekers in the election of 2001 and over the Tasmanian old growth forests in the election of 2004, the values divide between the two halves of the electorate on which the contemporary Labor Party primarily relied – the inner-city professionals and the traditional working class.

Nothing in politics is permanent. What Howard in Lazarus Rising is unable to see is that by pulling both the political culture and the Labor Party so decidedly to the Right he had opened a space for a powerful new party on the Left, the Greens, whose fundamental ambition would be to try to undo almost everything Howard hoped he had achieved. The parliament is at present delicately balanced between the deeply conservative Coalition led by Tony Abbott, John Howard’s true and legitimate heir, and an ideologically protean Labor government soon to be reliant for the success of its legislative program on the Senate numbers of the Greens. Lazarus’ rise was indeed spectacular. In the coming years it is possible, although by no means certain, that we will be watching the Lazarus’ descent.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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