Outdoing Menzies by a mile


We should not be in any doubt now that John Howard is the man for our times. You might object that he’s a dinosaur, but so what? Have you noticed how many dinosaurs there are on the screen these days? Like everything else in nature, dinosaurs ruled until some greater, smarter or bolder force imposed itself. In their case it seems to have been an ice age or a meteorite. In John Howard’s case, in the absence of a greater, smarter or bolder Labor Party, we may have to wait for something similar.

The main reason Howard is the man for our times is that he has made the times his own. No one else was making a concerted claim, so he did. It may be alleged that the times are post-modern and Howard is almost pre; that the times are global, multicultural, transnational, revolutionary, and many other things that Howard’s persona fails distinctly to embody. It might be because he is none of these things that he is the man for the times “ and close to becoming an icon of them. He is like some curio of Grandpa’s “ the old Wedgwood ashtray or replica of Greyfriar’s Bobby “ we took down from the mantelpiece and forgot to put back. We meant to do it, but you know how you put something on the dresser and after a while this somehow becomes the natural place for it. So it was with John Howard. Then one day we looked and the thing had begun to glow.

Howard has been lucky: it is possible that no leader in the English speaking world has had his stars so favourably aligned since Elizabeth I. For serial good luck only Menzies comes close. What is much more consequential, now only Menzies surpasses his tenure as Prime Minister; and what’s more perhaps only Menzies will rival the stamp he leaves.

It was not all luck of course. A lot of rat cunning went into it, a lot of shameless manipulation and pragmatism of the worst kind. There was also smart politics, sharp instincts and more energy than any of his predecessors. Some policies undoubtedly were sound ones (not that sound policies were always proof against defeat). But luck, as with everything else in love, sport and history, was more than half of it. Howard has had what appears to be almost essential to political success in the era of economics (vide Hawke and Keating, Blair and Brown): a credible and commanding Treasurer with just enough ambition and promise to draw twice the publicity and make the leadership more interesting than anything the Opposition is saying or doing.

Courtesy of the government preceding him, Howard had, above all, sustained economic growth and low interest rates. And he had a war; a phantom kind of war like Menzies’ Cold War; but, also like that war, real and horrible and with enough evidence of death and destruction to frighten and anger even the most complacent. And here Howard outdoes Menzies by a mile. Menzies drew most of his advantage from a divided Labor Party. Nothing he in fact initiated compares with Howard’s achievement in getting the public to think that on a couple of hundred Australian troops our main alliance, victory in the war against terror, peace in the Middle East, the nation’s honour and our national security depended.

You have to give him credit, really you do. He has made the most of the myriad opportunities that came his way, and the more that come the greater his appetite has grown. This is the danger with old enemies, especially ones your side has humiliated. One day “ a day perhaps when you are gazing at your reflection in a pond – they at last get their foot on the back of your neck, and there’s no pity left in them and nothing will persuade them to take it off. All the days of your life they will make you pay.

In a narcissistic age it might be the absence of personal narcissism in the intensely practical Howard that gives him his advantage. Just now it might also be turning him into a legend of Australian politics. Howard’s story is beginning to take the shape of a fable. It is a fable of a narrow, myopic, unimaginative man who for years lives with scorn and disappointment, but learns to feed on it and draw his strength from it. He evolves into an indestructible, unstoppable force and eventually becomes a hero to his followers and to his enemies a little beastie with a malevolent glow.

It’s a myth of course. It leaves out the crucial bit about how, as Prime Minister, he never runs into an opponent who imposes on the times a stronger will or a bolder vision. Instead he runs into people who are competent and practical and ever so hard-headed, modern and professional, yet essentially poor imitations of himself: none of them with his gravel and hunger, and none of them with enough force of personality, intellect or conviction to consistently say in ways that are persuasive “ ‘these are our times, look at them as we do, see what we will make of them.’ As with all legends, the coming legend of the Howard era will leave out the bit about how, essentially, he got it by default.

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