Let’s be honest, the last eight years of Australian politics, specifically the last five, have been the most uninspired in our nation’s history. Self interested power without purpose, internal navel gazing, and personal ambition has given way to the purpose of government: building policies through consensus and carrying the electorate with reforms designed to ensure the long term wellbeing of the nation.
During the past five years, whether or not you have agreed with some of the key policy proposals from either the ALP or the Coalition, it must be admitted that no politician has had the ability to carry the voters with them. In short, the reform agenda has taken a hiatus, and made way for political self interest. Both sides are guilty.
During the past week in particular, I’ve been looking back on how it used to be. Specifically, I recall the years growing up under the Howard government. I’ve heard it a few times lately: Bring John Howard back.
A politician’s legacy isn’t set until the history writers have had time to assess where they sit in the nation’s story, but recent events have done Howard a great favour. It’s even probable that some of his fiercest opponents miss some elements of his time in office – dare I say.
Whether or not you liked Howard, the following list reveals some of the things this country has missed since he departed in 2007.
No talk of leadership spills. No challenge whenever the polls went south (which they did several times during Howard’s long tenure in office), and no internal backstabbing. Some might point out that Peter Costello’s ambitions presented on occasion, but the treasurer put aside his own interests and sat on his hands in the best interests of his party and the country. Yes, this was less than ten years ago. Seems like a distant memory.
I’m not even talking about policy here. I’m talking about the ability to communicate with the electorate. Howard was able to snag middle class, traditional Labor voters because he could prosecute a political argument and carry people with him. He didn’t sound wooden in front of a camera, and he rarely became flustered in an interview. His successors can hardly make such a claim. Rudd was robotic, Gillard was wooden, and Abbott, well, just visit YouTube.
3. Economic reform
The economic ‘debate’ in the past five years has been farcical. ‘Surplus! No, deficit! Surplus! Debt! Too much debt!’ That’s pretty much been the parameter of discussion. Whatever happened to politicians focusing on long term structural solutions to complex issues? Hawke and Keating’s economic reforms during the 1980’s were challenging but essential, and Howard’s introduction of the GST was politically difficult and it nearly cost him an election. Now our federation couldn’t deal without it. It’s highly improbable that any politician would be able to introduce such a difficult proposal, given the knee jerk nature of our political commentary and our key board warriors on social media.
What did Kevin Rudd actually stand for? Himself would probably be the most acceptable answer. Likewise, what was Julia Gillard’s purpose? The nation’s first female prime minister, and an atheist, didn’t even have the courage to bring forward a debate on same-sex marriage, despite her latent support for it. What about Tony Abbott? His ideological commitments might be clearer than Rudd’s or Gillard’s, but even he described himself as a weathervane on key policy areas. Howard was the last conviction Prime Minister. People knew what he stood for, even if they didn’t like him. He was a conservative with a strong affection for Australia’s British heritage. He was an unshakable supporter of the American Alliance, and on economic policy he was a neo-liberal. Although, in keeping with Menzies’ tradition of nurturing the middle class, he was not adverse to providing government support to his ‘battlers’, as he called them.
5. Respect for office
Howard was hated by many, but even his most vocal opponents had at least some respect for his political ability. Kim Beazley, Labor’s go-to Opposition Leader for much of Howard’s rule, even described Howard as the most formidable politician of our time. Rudd lost all respect post 2010. Gillard never had authority, and Abbott frequently leaves himself open to ridicule. Howard at least presented as a statesmen, and his seeming permanency in office lent begrudged respect from all circles.
History works on perspective. It is not always the events at the time that write the story, but the aftermath that leads us to make our conclusions.
Mr Howard, considering how your first three successors have travelled, history is already treating you very kindly.