Birth of John Howard

July 26, 2018

On 26 July 1939, Australia's second longest serving Prime Minister, John Winston Howard OM AC was born.

Howard was elected to the Federal Parliament in May 1974 as the Liberal Member for Bennelong. He rose quickly to the rank of Treasurer under the Fraser Coalition Government in late 1977 (becoming Australia’s second youngest ever Treasurer at 38). He became deputy leader of the Liberal Party in April 1982 and as a leading 'dry' defeated then 'wet' faction leader John Hewson to become party leader in September 1985. Howard thereby became opposition leader against the then Hawke-Keating-Walsh government). 

The Liberal-National Coalition opposition lost the July 1987 election, due in part to the disruptive and abortive 'Joh for PM' campaign, and Howard was deposed as leader by a returning Peacock. Howard refused a shadow cabinet position, taking a seat on the backbench. Asked then about whether he might lead the Liberals again, Howard famously likened such a return to 'Lazarus with a triple bypass'.

Hewson went on to lose the 'unlosable' election of 1993 and after Alexander Downer's awkward 8-month leadership, Howard was drafted to become leader in early 1995. He won, 13 months later, in a landslide 2 March 1996 election, defeating a Keating Labor government mired in chronic debt & deficits, rigid labour markets, high unemployment and uncontrolled political correctness. So began 12 years of stable, predictable, mature, responsible and principled government. 

Celebrate John Howard’s birthday, his almost 12 years of conservative government and his political service to Australia by:

  • viewing his victory speech against Paul Keating in the 1996 Federal election
  • getting a hold of, and reading, Howard’s 2010 autobiography, “Lazarus Rising
  • enjoy this long video conversation on life, leadership and good public policy between former party leaders, John Howard (Liberal PM) and John Anderson (Nationals Deputy PM)
  • contrasting almost 12 years of stable Howard government (1996-2007), with the subsequent 12 years of leadership change and instability
  • re-committing yourself to something you might have given up on, your own 'Lazarus with a triple bypass' moment
  • taking (or initiating) your own early morning walking routine in Howard fashion, perhaps even wearing your own Howardesque tracksuit 
  • taking after cricketing tragic former PM Howard in brushing up on the next Australian summer of cricket, or even improving your bowling action
  • sharing this Action Plan post on social media with family, friends, conservatives, responsible and patriotic Aussies and those knowing (or beginning to suspect) that there was and still is … a better way!

Further dry detail

In the 1980s, as leader of “the (economic) dries”, Howard was a strong advocate for Thatcher-esque and Reagan-like pro-market liberalism, tight budgets and micro-economic reform, often attracting criticism from commentators and media operatives for being economically too ambitious and reformist, even unrealistic and doctrinaire. Ironically, most of these talking heads later in their careers looked back with praise for the economic courage, vision and reforms of the Hawke-Keating-Walsh governments without acknowledging that the only real political roadblocks to such reforms came from within Labor’s own ranks (eg unions, protectionists, “the wets”, “free stuff” advocates and socialists). The leaders of the Left had to convince the Left (not the Right) that these reforms were the best way forward.

With economic liberalisation and reform such as government spending cuts, simpler and more efficient taxes, tighter budgets, productivity-linked wages, IR and trade reform, there was rarely a hostile Senate led by the opposition during the Hawke-Keating government years. This is hard to believe/fathom due to our experience with Australian politics, particularly the Senate, since 1996 (ie when Howard became PM) and especially since 2013.

In the late 1980s, Howard was one of the early, strong advocates against multiculturalism, seeing its promotion and “success” as coming at the expense of a shared identity and harmony. He also was a strong advocate for traditional lifestyles and families, often criticised by sneering “progressives” and avant garde cosmopolitans for wanting a return of the Australian 'white picket fence' era.

Particularly in its early years, the Howard government:

  • fixed the budget debt and deficits inherited from Labor,
  • reformed workplaces and wharves,
  • eased the cost of living for the “Howard battlers”,
  • sold surplus assets,
  • resolutely kept our borders secure,
  • stemmed the tide of political correctness and
  • restored pride in our culture, society and nation.

The Howard government bequeathed Kevin Rudd's Labor government (who tried to imitate Howard as a fiscal conservative and “Howard-Lite”) with strong surpluses, no debt, Future Fund money in the bank, record low unemployment (near 4%) and over a decade of strong real growth in output, incomes and wages.

So much of what John Howard stood for in the 1980s – to much derision and ridicule, particularly from the cosmopolitan elites – guided him during his nearly 12 years in government. Whilst he gained pragmatism and honed the art of rhetoric and “the narrative” along the way, his values, framework and convictions remained intact throughout.

Possibly his biggest regret, or at least for conservatives, was the proliferation of family and other welfare payments under his watch, which Labor and the Left expanded. These payments softened the resolve of some individuals and families to remain proudly independent (of government), personally responsible, self-reliant and resilient – the conservative way. They are also politically very difficult to wind back, let alone stop expanding.

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