Napoleon on the Tank Stream


Perhaps it is merely a case of distance, but John Howard looks even smaller in personality, substance and relevance from here in London. His recent attack on Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama, who last week announced his campaign for the presidency of the United States, only emphasises the intellectual and moral puniness of our PM.


The British press covered Howard’s claim that terrorists would embrace Obama as their candidate of choice because of his policy of a phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraq not so much with outrage as derision. They scoffed at a leader who has committed so few troops to a conflict he so ardently supports who dares to preen himself as some sort of international statesman able to comment on another country’s internal politics.

In the US itself, Howard to the extent that he is noticed at all by the media or the public is regarded as an adjunct to George W Bush and his discredited regime.

Anyway, comparing Howard to Obama is comparing a molehill to a mountain. Howard is, at best, a journeyman, an utterly unremarkable figure who has enjoyed a great run of luck not of his own making. He is, at worst, a political hack who has benefited from until now, that is limp opposition from the Federal Labor Party.

By contrast, Obama, born of an American mother and a Kenyan father, is a star who does not need to have spent 33 years in politics to have demonstrated the kind of qualities that can mobilise a political movement and transform a nation. Obama’s mere presence on the political stage is more significant than Howard’s three decades in Parliament. Obama represents hope and possibility; Howard only cynicism and lies.

Howard’s cosseted life as the son of a service station owner, a mediocre high school then university student, a suburban solicitor and finally a politician representing an affluent constituency contrasts with Obama’s rigorous and disciplined upbringing, which exposed him to the harsher side of life. Abandoned by his father at age two, he spent his formative years being raised by his grandparents. His acknowledged experimentation with cannabis and cocaine as a teenager hardly the ‘dirty secret’ Fox News is trying to suggest, given that he wrote about it in a book only makes his story of redemption and achievement all the more impressive.

Thanks to Alan Moir

Obama graduated from Columbia and Harvard universities magna cum laude while Howard struggled with a straightforward black-letter law degree. (It has always intrigued me as to why, in a time of widely available scholarships and bursaries, Howard chose to do only a Bachelor of Laws without an accompanying Bachelor of Arts. Was it that he simply could not comprehend, or appreciate the value of a broader Humanities degree?) Howard entered politics through dogged hack work in the Liberal Party branches not because anyone recognised a star quality early in his career.

Where Howard’s religious devotion is a form of lower middle-class social climbing, involving a conversion from Methodism to Anglicanism, and exhibited only when there’s a TV camera around to capture him walking through the doors of a church, Obama’s faith is rich and deep. The first person he thanked on the night of his election to the US Senate in 2004 was his pastor, because it was his Christian-inspired belief in social and economic justice that drove him into politics.

Howard has achieved political success by pandering to popular prejudice. Obama won election to the US Senate by confronting prejudice and self interest. He opposed the Iraq War from the start (when it was popular) and told audiences of wealthy Americans they needed to pay more tax.

For John Howard to wade into domestic US politics is not simply ‘undiplomatic,’ as his reliable courtier (and former staff member) Gerard Henderson claimed recently (while agreeing with the substance of Howard’s comments). It is idiotic.

It invites unflattering comparisons for our Prime Minister. It focuses the attention of Australians, and the world, on the little man with the Napoleon complex who governs our country. And it proves how right and how prescient the late Donald Horne was when he argued as far back as the 1960s that Australia was a first rate country run by second rate people.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.