Howard's End (with apologies to E.M. Forster)


Around this time last year a good friend of mine was invited to the cricket at the SCG – the Australian Cricket Board’s box no less. It was the New Year’s Day test, the last day of play, and it was an absolute stinker.

As is generally the case with these kinds of invites, ‘suitable’ attire for the ladies (which I think means not too much bare flesh) and jackets for the men (mercifully simple), is the order of the day. So off he trundled trussed up like the proverbial Christmas turkey, dripping sweat before he’d even got there, all for the privilege of watching Steve Waugh play in his final Test.

The ACB’s box is quite large, partly air-conditioned and guests come and go throughout the day. Watching cricket for hours on end is a hard and thirsty job and the bar is well stocked. During one of the drinks breaks my mate made a foray to the bar in search of some sustenance. Whilst patiently waiting to be served, trying to keep an eye on proceedings, another guest who was also waiting to be served joined him.

Being the clever chap he is, my friend made some kind of disparaging remark about the service however the other guest replied he didn’t think it was too bad. Outraged he turned to disagree with the speaker only to find John Howard standing next to him.

Generally, when the PM goes to the cricket it’s a pretty low-key affair but even so my friend hadn’t noticed his arrival and it surprised him. Having not been at such close quarters with our venerable leader before what also surprised my friend was how ‘ordinary’ he thought John Howard appeared to be.

In hindsight, my mate believes he didn’t notice that the PM had joined the ranks because there was no fuss, no retinue and well, he just ‘didn’t have that air of celebrity’ about him. Howard just looked like everyone else.

‘People were more interested in Kamahl who was sitting next to him!’

That’s one of the secrets of John Howard’s Prime Ministership, unless there’s a very good reason, he prefers most things, including the business of politics, to be conducted under the radar. He plans away from the spotlight and only makes announcements when it’s a fait accompli.

And make no mistake, since the beginning of November when it finally became clear that the Government would control both houses in the next Parliament, John Howard has been quietly mulling over exactly how he will run the legislative agenda of his fourth term.

We’re all aware of Howard’s twenty-year obsession with industrial relations. The PM has indicated to business leaders he’s not interested in abolishing the Industrial Relations Commission as some, including the likes of Chris Corrigan, have been urging him to do. Nonetheless, union leaders are bracing for a radical overhaul of industrial relations legislation that will probably include a national system that will have enough grunt to over-ride many existing State laws.

Unions for their part are wisely recasting themselves for the fight ahead. The ACTU leadership in particular has basked over Christmas in the glory of the James Hardie compensation payouts. Combet and co. have managed to score some rather large brownie points with the electorate and regained some hard fought for influence and credibility.

With Labor looking largely impotent in the new parliament expect a more conciliatory approach toward the Government from some unions. The times they are a’ changing and the unions know there’s a strong possibility they’ll be dealing with a Coalition Government not for three years but for six. They’ll need to cut a deal with the Government and remain a player or risk being legislated out of existence.

Other hoary old chestnuts being quietly massaged over Christmas include the media ownership laws. Given the Murdochs and the Packers made themselves available at short notice to attend the Prime Minister’s Christmas drinks at the Lodge, the Seven Network’s Kerry Stokes may rue his decision not to attend and go skiing in Aspen instead.

Stokes spends a small fortune on lobbying various politicians from both sides and he will find a friend in Labor’s Communications spokesman, Stephen Conroy. However, upon being appointed Minister, Helen Coonan immediately flagged that cross media and other media laws were up for renegotiation. Without the diversity or the spending power of ACP and News Corp, Stokes has the most to lose. He will have been singularly unimpressed by Gordon Samuels intervention over the holidays, calling on the Government to scrap the current conditions in favour of a pro-competition environment. There’s no doubt that the current legislation is antiquated and endless amendments that aim to keep pace with the ever-changing advances in technology are simply not enough.

Coonan’s departmental review will deliver the nuts and bolts for a policy by March and an announcement will be ready for a Prime Ministerial seal by mid-year. How, when and where people receive or can access information is not a very sexy theme and not designed to garner votes. It’s a complicated issue but it’s a vitally important one. If we get it wrong and do not take this chance to recast the legislation properly it could grossly inhibit the future cultural and intellectual development of this country. That these issues rated barely a passing mention during the election campaign was really no surprise especially with the spotlight firmly focussed on the proposed sell-off of Telstra.

Forget any debate on Telstra. It’s done and dusted and will be sold. Howard will allow the National Party to make all the appropriate noises — just enough to assure their constituents that they’re down in Canberra protecting rural Australia. Taking in the amount of time the Libs will need to placate and cajole their country cousins, I would expect the Telstra bonanza to begin in the early part of 2006; putting a tidy $30 billion dollars in the Prime Minister’s hip pocket.

All that lovely moolah will give Howard enormous scope to implement, what the PM hopes, will be his lasting and irreversible mark on this country — tax reform.

Riveting, yes? No sweeping statements about alleviating poverty, forging closer relations with Asia, or being a world peace-keeper for this Prime Minister. It’s tax reform for John Winston Howard and while that’s about as interesting as watching paint dry the PM’s steady as she goes strategy will have more far-reaching effects on Australian society than anything else the ‘élites’ may dream up for him.

There is still the US Free Trade Agreement to tidy up and Howard is very keen on opening doors into China but it’s all part of a larger picture that has reforming the tax system at all levels at its core. The Australian newspaper’s Paul Kelly had a pretty good crack at suggesting Aboriginal politics was high on Howard’s agenda in this term but in reality it’s a side issue for him, albeit a valuable piece of window-dressing.

The first tranche of reform came courtesy of the last Budget; there were a few more goodies during the election especially for small business with the Government promising to simplify the paperwork. Costello has just decided to implement all fifty-four recommendations of a year-long review into the tax system that will curtail the Tax Office’s power to audit. Finally, in what was a jam-packed December, in the last three weeks of the Parliament the Government managed to squeeze eighteen tax bills into the House, including the James Hardie Bill which will be fast tracked when everyone goes back to work in February.

But there will be more to come and we can expect some heavy point scoring by Howard and his Treasury side-kick off the back of the very healthy GST revenue predictions. The States are in for a torrid time from the Treasurer and any friendly overtures already made by the likes of Bob Carr and Peter Beattie in the wake of the election will surely dry up if Costello attacks them for not cutting their own state taxes like the extremely lucrative stamp duty and other land taxes.

The cherry on top of the cake for Howard is to finally change the personal income marginal tax rates as most believe we pay too much tax and as one tax expert opined, ‘we just don’t get enough bang for our buck’. It’s a tall order, but if the Prime Minister is able to achieve this as well as continuing to feed money into Costello’s ‘future fund’ he will hand government to the Coalition for as long as they want it — never mind the next two terms.

Even though the Prime Minister’s attention has been diverted by south east Asia’s devastating tsunamis, the relief effort and any subsequent financial contribution to rebuilding the region might delay his agenda — but not for long. It will be a busy time for the PM because after the initial flurry of aid is delivered, Australia and John Howard will be expected to assume an unprecedented level of leadership in the Asia-Pacific — a role that can only serve to enhance Howard’s reputation both here and abroad.

It’s good to be king, so the saying goes, and although the Prime Minister will be very careful about the manner in which he will flex his considerable legislative muscle we wait to see the extent of the power Howard now wields.

In the end-of-year round of interviews the Prime Minister gave to the major broadsheets just before Christmas, he was at his most deprecating and humble best. He was just like everyone else and insisted he had the same aspirations as most other ordinary people “ he worked hard, loved his family and looked forward to spending time doing the things he enjoyed most, like going to the cricket.

But this far from ordinary Prime Minister hinted that he was not about to squander his opportunity to mould this country with his own set of values, ethics and morals as he sees fit. After all the electorate has given him the authority to do so.

This is truly Howard’s time.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.