Monday, November 26, 2007
Howard's End

Hair lurked in great thickets in his nostrils and sprouted wildly in his eyebrows. Only on his head did it grow more sparsely, combed over to disguise a creeping baldness.

Charisma eluded John Howard even at the height of his powers. Back then, in 1984, it seemed improbable he could ever rise to enjoy the lavish and repeated public praise of a US President. Or, for a long while, hold the admiration, respect and even affection of the majority of the Australian people.

That was the first time I met him. He was already a formidable political figure. He had run Australia’s treasury for five years. He was a policy man, with an impatience to lead his party. But it was a tiny human detail that stuck with me and which I remembered later many times as I tried to fathom the appeal he had to many people.

It was Perth. The day was formidably hot and I was late to the press conference. Embarrassed and sweating heavily, I crept in close to the candidate to position a radio microphone.

Howard interrupted his flow to look at me in good humor, and to grin sympathetically.

The Prime Minister of the day, the silvery, mob-beloved Bob Hawke, might have snarled or delivered a put down joke to play up to the crowd.

Howard didn’t. I sensed he was an awkward man, forgiving of awkwardness.

The natural graces of the star politician seemed beyond John Howard. In the late 1980s, I covered a speech he gave in rural Bendigo. His voice was whiney and strident. He hammered away his policy points with a metronomic jabbing of his arm. His audience were party supporters. They listened politely but drifted away.

In 1993, when his career was at its lowest point, rejected by his party and apparently doomed to see out his service on the backbenches, John Howard turned up in France. It was the 75th anniversary of the end of World War One and an official party of surviving Australian “diggers” was being guided around the slaughter fields of their youth.

Howard, whose father and grandfather both fought in the trenches, was tagging along. At one point, a trail of elderly men was tottering across a road between a restaurant and their bus. Howard, instinctively helpful, respectful of elders, leapt into the road to try to manage the traffic. The French drivers ignored this nondescript man. One old soldier muttered contemptuously, “What’s he doing here?”

Two and a half years later, John Howard would be Australia’s prime minister. Ultimately he would serve in that job longer than any other but one – the post-war leader Sir Robert Menzies.

How could the same man be those two men?

John Howard said himself the times would suit him. Australians were exasperated by the Labor Prime Minister. Paul Keating was brilliant and charismatic but never disguised his belief in his own intellectual superiority.

John Howard won the vote in 1996. Within weeks, Australia faced the Port Arthur massacre, still the world’s worst peacetime slaughter by a single gunman. At a Tasmanian historical prison site a young man killed 35 people, including children he chased down and shot at point blank range.

Howard did something conventional conservative political thought said was impossible and improper to do. He instituted gun control legislation and forced it through. Such was the fear of backlash, for a brief while he took to delivering public speeches with a bullet-proof vest beneath his suit. There has not been a large-scale shooting in Australia since.

He barely survived his first electoral test, losing the popular vote but scraping back in 1998 on a narrow majority of Parliamentary seats.

His main achievements were pushing through an unpopular consumption tax and ordering a military intervention to support East Timor, after the population voted for independence from their occupiers, Indonesia.

However, that seemed likely to be Howard’s end. By early 2001 he was trailing so badly in the polls that only he seemed to sustain any faith in his party’s survival.

But the defining Howard years were still ahead.

Weeks from the 2001 election he seemed likely to lose, Howard tightened his line on asylum seekers trying to enter Australia by sea from Indonesia. The refugees were chiefly from Afghanistan and Iraq.

When the crew of a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, rescued several hundred asylum seekers from a sinking vessel, Howard ordered that they be banned from being landed on Australian territory.

He sent the military, including special forces troops, to keep the Tampa at bay. The action outraged human rights groups and raised cries of racism. But it was popular with the electorate. Howard’s declamation, “we will decide who comes to Australia and the circumstances in which they come” quickly appeared on campaign posters.

Then came 9/11.

John Howard was in Washington when it happened. In the global shock that followed, voters went to the security they knew and Howard’s re-election was assured.

His prime ministership can ultimately be divided into two near-equal periods. Before 9/11 and after. Post 9/11, his philosophical closeness to George W. Bush gave him unprecedented access in Washington and made Australia’s voice more prominent than a nation of barely 20 million people has a right to expect.

The Iraq war was not all that popular at any stage in Australia. By now, the opposition Labor Party had turned to an articulate and iconoclastic young leader. Mark Latham was a self-described “hater”. People were initially drawn towards him but quickly found they liked him less the more they knew of him. In 2004, Howard was returned with a larger majority.

By then the man of bristling eyebrows and nostrils, of jagged teeth and barbershop hair, had been groomed into the best possible approximation of an elder statesman. He remained personally courteous, but seemed to tolerate policies that trampled the rights and dignities of people outside his beloved “mainstream Australia.” Those less likely to speak fluent English, seemed more likely to find themselves on the outer.

By 2007, Australians knew John Howard intimately. They knew his tricks and the levers he pulled. The Labor Party, in the Chinese-speaking former diplomat Kevin Rudd, had at last an Opposition leader who didn’t scare school-children, who wasn’t tainted by unpleasant memories of the previous Labor government, and who seemed socially and economically disciplined. So much so that revelations of a boozed-up night at a New York strip club years before actually boosted his poll numbers.

Howard had the chance to leave as an undefeated Prime Minister. He could have handed over to his long-time deputy and treasurer, Peter Costello. He didn’t. In fairness, he might have believed – as many of his own MPs believed – that he was the best chance his government had of re-election.

Late polls showed the opposite was true. But by then it was too late.

A friend of mine who was with the Prime Minister on Saturday November 24th at his official Sydney resident, described him as being somber and drained, with bloodshot eyes and utterly lacking his customary bounce. The most astute political operator of his generation knew better than anyone the game was up.

That evening, the votes were counted. Howard was swept out in a landslide.

-- From Hugh Riminton, CNN International Correspondent, in Sydney.

Terrific write-up, Hugh. Well observed, good to read.

It was indeed odd to see the unappealing dry Howard become "Honest John" and "statesman John". Later he even became "huggable old John".

But the manipulation of his image was consistent with the awesome spin doctors he employed throughout his time in office. The lines they put in his mouth (and Costello's) were always light years ahead of anything Labor could come up with.

I'm trying to picture him as "former PM Howard" turning up to events and funerals with Keating, Hawke, Fraser and Whitlam. He'll be an odd fit.
Overall a good article and synopsis but very damning (consistently) of Howard’s physical appearance which is completely unnecessary.
As a US citizen I didn't know very much about John Howard and his history with Australia. Your blog was a visual word report taking readers from point A to point B easily. I appreciated the commentary.
I can now walk tall when I am overseas, no longer embarrassed to say that I am an Australian.
Yes! The thorn in the Kangaroo's back has been removed.
Interesting commentary, but am very surprised that there is no mention of economic issues - John Howard and Peter Costello did an excellent job re the economy, even avoiding the global "slow down" earlier this century when so much of the world, USA included, were in trouble.

I AM overseas and have ALWAYS walked tall as an Australian. Luckily, people in Europe aren't aware that our reputation for giving a "fair go" doesn't apply to all Aussies.

Regardless of one's personal politics and opinions of Howard personally, he deserves respect for working so hard serving our country and improving the lives of so many Australians.

Hopefully the world will now know that our reputation for giving a "fair go" once again includes Aboriginal Australians, Immigrants, the homless, the unemployed, females, David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib, employees not just employers.

Im sure Hugh knows as well as most our economic success has more to do with the growth of China and India then Howard ! He didn't sell ice to eskimos!

I like the others are thankful his gone I only wished it hapened sooner........ say before Iraq (illeagal war), Children over boad (No children thrown over board), Tampa (where was the fair go then ? sinking ship people saved by a frieghter told dont come here on the eve of an election!

Before Australians were tortured with government concent!
would we know your friend Hugh?
Now that Howard has finally been dumped, the "Fair Go" Immigration Department might want to consider repatriating this chronic monarchist back to his 'mother' england where he can sip high noon tea with his cherished shiftless royals, under a portrait of that supreme racist Rhodes, and pine for the 'glory' days of british rule and savagery against defenseless Indigenous people across the globe.
Today, former Prime Minister John Howard is a broken man, having failed to outlast even one of the most unpopular US Presidents in history. I'm glad of it. Howard needs to think long and hard about what he's done - having played the political game of division and negativity to his advantage (and towards his ultimate destruction). Considering his position on apologies, we're unlikely to get one from him - but we voters showed Howard that there was a lot more to the country than his "battlers" and the pensioners.

We're a more assertive and diverse nation than we were 50 years ago, and this was proven in November.

Howard, like Fraser in the 70s and 80s, kept the seat warm for a great reformer like Rudd to step in.

Ultimately, those two former Prime Ministers kept to the political philosophy of another former Liberal Prime Minister, Sir William Mcmahon more than they would ever admit. They all believed that politics was about being elected.
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