The curious thing about John Howard is that, when you come to write about him, there isn’t a great deal to say. There’s a lot you can say about his conservative policies and political acumen, but not much about Howard as a person.
When, for example, you think of Lloyd George or Winston Churchill or Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin or John Grey Gorton, you carry in your mind’s eye some vision of the person. But not with John Howard. It’s not to do with knowing or meeting. I’ve never met Howard, but then I never met Lloyd George, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin or Gorton, either.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
We all know that the Hon. John Winston Howard has been the Prime Minister of Australia since March 1996; he was born in 1939; his father owned a service station and garage; he went to Earlwood Primary School, Canterbury Boys’ High, then on to the University of Sydney, where he took a law degree. In 1971, Howard married his wife, Janette, and they have three children – Melanie, Tim and Richard. John Howard has been active with the Liberal Party since the age of eighteen, and is a keen follower of sport – especially cricket. (I got all this from the website, ‘Your PM and His Team’ and am now speechless with boredom.)
Lesser known facts about John Howard are contained in a speech given by Anthony Albanese, the Labor Member for Grayndler, in April 1998 in the House of Representatives during a grievance debate (link here). Albanese alleged that John Winston Howard lived at home with his widowed mum until he was thirty-two; that he wore shorts and long, white socks; that he listened to Pat Boone albums and waited all week for the Saturday night church dance, when he could talk to the girls about the virtues of monarchy and empire. The family were, apparently, Methodists. (When I was a lad, I belonged to the Young Anglicans, so I know how John Howard felt.) Howard is now a practising Anglican, who regularly attends the North Sydney Anglican church, sitting in the back row with his minders. (Albanese’s speech ended with ‘Roll on that day, come the Federal election’. But Labor lost.)
In May 2004, Craig Isherwood, Victorian Senate Candidate for the Citizens’ Electoral Council of Australia, alleged that John Howard’s father was a member of Eric Campbell’s Fascist New Guard, and that Howard – with the Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2004 – was following in his father’s footsteps (link here). This may, or may not, be true, but I don’t think the father’s sins should necessarily be visited upon the son.
In any event, the only lasting vision I have of John Howard is of an earnest young man – in shirt sleeves (and with hair and horn-rimmed glasses) spruiking in the street on behalf of the Liberal Party. This fits in with Anthony Albanese’s long white socks portrait of the young man.
For some reason, we expect political leaders to have personality traits outside their politics. In some respects, we expect them to be larger than life. That, I suppose, is partly what leadership is about.
For instance, it was known to a wide number of people that Lloyd George was chronically unfaithful to his wife – that he had a mistress, whom he made no attempt to conceal. It was equally well known that Winston Churchill had a drinking problem – which, again, he made little attempt to hide. And all through his life, Adolf Hitler felt gauche and inadequate when faced with someone from a class above him. He was essentially a provincial man.
Even Australian politicians had their share of eccentricities – Parkes, Hughes, Bruce, Snedden, Gorton, Hawke, Keating. But John Howard seems to have no eccentricities at all. It was Don Watson, I think, who said that Howard was possessed of ‘a rat-like cunning’; but that is hardly an eccentricity. I should have thought that ‘a rat-like cunning’ was essential to any politician.
Perhaps the nearest thing to an eccentricity is John Howard’s early morning walk; but I often see men and women striding – arms pumping – through the nearby park in a Howard-like fashion.
In her book, God Under Howard, Marian Maddox links John Howard with the religious right in Australia. But Howard’s approach to the Christian religion is ecumenical. He says he is a ‘low key Christian’ and would worship in any church. Has Howard ever worshipped in a mosque? I can’t remember. (It is interesting that all three leaders of the ‘coalition of the willing’ – Bush, Blair and Howard – are each committed Christians, thus giving credence to the ‘Good vs Evil’ view of history.)
We can argue about John Howard’s use of religion in politics, but it’s the belief in God that’s the thing. It enables John and Janette Howard to sit piously in church with George and Laura Bush as the devoted fathers and mothers of their respective nations. (The curious thing is that whenever I think of Janette Howard, I think of McCalls and Butterick dress patterns. I wonder why that is?)
John Howard’s religion also gives comfort to those Australians who only go to church for marriage, baptism and death. It is, I suppose, what one expects of a leader in troubled times.
It’s the banality and ordinariness of John Howard that is the most vexing. If it weren’t for his conservative politics, his morning walk and the Akubra hat, he might not be there at all. It’s the vacuousness of the retirement village, the Tidy Town, the Lions Club, the neat nature strip, the RSL and the bowling club.
Don’t we deserve a little better than this?
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