Profile: John Howard

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For the real Australians and Jubilee-philes among you, you will have noticed that former Australian Prime Minister John Howard just received the Order of Merit from the Queen, which is held by only 24 living people for distinguished services to the Commonwealth.

Having managed to make some time for a packed Union in the midst of the Jubilee festivities, we managed a few minutes of his time before he held forth on everything from the euro crisis to Iraq, Japan and the ongoing issue of Australian republicanism. An unapologetic monarchist – or more accurately as someone who sees the entire Australian republicanism movement as “immature hogwash” – he managed the impressive feat of situating himself further right than even the packed Union chamber.

Not exactly the sort to have much time for beating around the bush, he took off almost immediately on his views on the China-Australia relationship. John Howard adroitly managed to walk the tightrope of US-China relations, navigating the obvious tensions raised by Australia’s close economic partnership with China and security alliance with the United States. Expressing somewhat wearied confidence that Australia can ‘have both’, the former Prime Minister condemned the ‘gratuitous damage’ done by the current Labor government in Australia, accusing them of having ‘mishandled’ the relationship with China – most likely referring to Kevin Rudd publicly raising human rights abuses in Tibet whilst speaking at Peking University in 2008. Having opened his talk on a cautionary note – one that he described as an ‘observation rather than a profound insight’ – he voiced his skepticism about making sweeping generalizations and grand narratives of history (somewhat ironic, given the setting), especially the sweeping generalizations about China’s rise. Arguing that romanticized dichotomies and predictions of conflict between China and the United States were largely illusory, he cautioned against the apparent need to be forced into one camp or another. When prodded further about the issue, he dismissed the allegations of an irreconcilable tension: “You don’t have to choose between your history and your geography. I think you can have both.”

Suggesting that China was being ‘irritated’ by the current government, he also added that although current Foreign Minister Bob Carr has spoken of the difficulties the US military alliance with Australia (ANZUS) creates in dealings with China, Howard claimed China had never raised the issue of ANZUS during his time in office: “it just never came up”. The implication seemed to be either that Australia-China relations have materially altered in the last few years, or that the current government is exaggerating geopolitical tensions for domestic political mileage. Despite claims that China is not a threat to Australian security, in true conservative fashion, Howard made no secret of the fact that he was nonetheless “appalled” by recent cuts to the defense budget. The slight incongruence between these two views went unacknowledged, however.

Howard backed up his sanguine view of China’s rise with the claim that China has “no significant expansionary territorial designs” because it is predominantly pre-occupied by domestic security issues and the transition to matching its current economic liberalization with future political liberalization – describing this issue as an “elephant in the room” in any analysis of China. However, Howard also perhaps oversimplified here for the Chamber, ignoring recent growing tensions between China and its near neighbors over competing claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea.

It wasn’t all about China, however. Howard was not only unapologetic about his staunch conservatism; he also confessed to having little patience with those political leaders who changed their views significantly upon leaving office, “I have no time for the sort”. The thinly veiled swipe was aimed at former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who gave up his Liberal Party membership in 2009 and has been highly critical of the party which was once his ideological home, reinforced the image of Howard as someone who, though often polarizing, was certainly ideologically consistent and clear about his guiding principles whilst in office. However, equally, it could be said to speak to a dogmatism and resistance to change that, arguably, forced Howard increasingly out of kilter with mainstream Australian opinion.

Howard was entirely at ease revisiting the most controversial decisions of his tenure as Prime Minister. Identifying Iraq as “the most controversial decision” taken by his government, he was quick to denounce the “outrageous and unfair” accusations that evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction was circumstantial – drawing a parallel with the use of circumstantial evidence that led to the successful assassination of Osama Bin Laden. On his controversial introduction of a Goods and Sales Tax (GST) in Australia, he made no bones about his opinion that it’s sometimes important to ignore or otherwise defy public opinion.

When asked why he thought that Australia had faced particular difficulties with integrating its indigenous minorities, Howard was reluctant to concede that it was the most significant social issue that had faced his government. However, he was more sanguine about the future for Australia’s aboriginal peoples – “it’s very slow but it’s getting better. And the one thing that comes through is that people want to do it. There’s still a lot of good will in Australian community towards the indigenous population and it’s just a very slow process”. When questioned further about why Australia has had particular issues with integrating its indigenous population unlike countries such as New Zealand and Canada, he paused before answering that “part of it is that I think we had bad policy for about thirty years. You mentioned the word integration – you have to get away from the notion that it’s two separate groups of people. The history of New Zealand is different due to the treaty of Waitangi” (between the British colonizers and its indigenous Maori people). However, equally, opponents of Howard in Australia have used the positive example of the NZ treaty to justify further symbolic recognition of Australia’s indigenous population.

Regarding further issues concerning multiculturalism, Howard did not shy away from defending his much-maligned comments in the late 1980s on immigration and integration. Once the topic of integration of indigenous minorities had been broached, the question of his controversial statement in the late 1980s suggesting that Asian immigration should be “slowed down a little” to support “social cohesion” was raised. Howard responded by arguing that “There was sensitivity some in communities [to certain new groups of immigrants]… I just said well it might a good idea for it to be the right time to slow down…which is a fairly common sense point of view”. Queried on why he later recanted this statement, then, Howard stated simply, “I should have known that people would take it the wrong way.”

Certainly, if Howard was misleadingly accused of dog whistling on this issue, this was nothing compared to the furore over asylum-seekers and accusations of dog whistling against the primarily Afghani and South Asian individuals attempting to reach Australian shores by boat that constituted a major issue in the 2001 Federal election. Howard retorted that “we couldn’t be accused of running a racist policy as the level of Asian immigration rose when I was prime minister. There was no evidence of discrimination against people based on their ethnic identity and there shouldn’t be. But if you don’t control it, people get nervous. And once they get nervous, they withdraw their support for immigration. And when that happens, it’s bad for the country”.

Certainly, Australia and, for that matter, many countries within the European Union have struggled to deal with community tensions over the increasingly multicultural character of society – and political leaders such as Howard have had to balance the benefits of increased immigration levels against the fear of inciting instances of xenophobia such as the Cronulla riots in Australia in 2005 or recent anti-immigrant riots in Greece. It is hence difficult to know what to make of Howard’s tough Pacific Solution for asylum-seekers – on the one hand, it appears inhumane to deport and detain individuals (particularly children) who have done no crime except seek asylum in a foreign country, but on the other it does seem important to manage community feelings about increased immigration levels. Drawing attention to a recent poll in Australia signifying a rise in support for a reduction in immigration – only 41% were in favour of increasing immigration – he added, “whenever people think immigration policy is lax, they turn against it”.

Certainly, Australia faces significant tensions as a predominantly white, Western nation in the Asia-Pacific region and the potential for culture clash with its neighbours is acute. That international politics and international sport are occasionally found in bed together is hardly news. Howard stayed away from elaborating on the controversy over his nomination for the position of Chair of the International Cricket Council, choosing to say only that it seemed obvious that some countries were not in favor of an “activist President”. Given the not-very-well-kept secret that it was the South Asian nations that effectively torpedoed his nomination, all indications suggest that this had less to do with his commitment and enthusiasm (Howard’s passion for cricket is well known) and more to do with his strong stance against corruption. However, given the chance to elaborate, he declined to comment.

Switching topics to the Euro zone crisis, Howard’s views were unsurprising. Reiterating the mainstream economic consensus that the Euro was based on a “fundamentally flawed” view that one could have monetary without fiscal union, he further argued that fiscal union is impossible between nation states who are without the sense of community and national bonds to justify financial re-distribution. The disturbing implication for the future of the Euro was left to the listener.

John Howard is thus in many ways a breath of fresh air; he is a politician who has successfully staked out an ideologically consistent, clear and usually well-justified point of view on a wide range of domestic and geo-political issues. Certainly, in light of the domestic political turmoil that has marked Australia since 2010, Howard’s long tenure can easily be looked back upon with appreciation for the relative stability and prosperity of his 11 years in office. However, equally, for this reason the listener is left feeling something wanting – Howard’s version of ‘common sense’ conservatism fails to inspire or enthuse a particular vision of a better and greater society. Australia’s society may be more “comfortable” since Howard’s term in office, but the issues of symbolic integration of its indigenous, ethnic, gay or single-parent minorities into Australia’s national picture remains far from resolved or advanced. However, one gets the sense that Howard would be perfectly satisfied leaving this to others; Howard’s focus on the cultural symbols of the past, concrete policy initiatives and economic rigour remains both his greatest attraction as a politician and greatest limitation as a national leader.

PHOTO/jon.luddock