No Mutineers on HMS Howard


John Howard was often accused of emulating Robert Menzies, but as former Victorian Liberal MP Robert Dean recently observed in The Age, the only things Howard has in common with Menzies are longevity and a brand name. To truly understand Howard, it is necessary to understand Malcolm Fraser – a strange claim at first, given their differences, but in Fraser we can see what Howard was reacting against.

Fraser was a politician so tolerant of debate that it almost stopped him from becoming Prime Minister. During the blockage of the Budget in late 1975, Liberal Senators such as Don Jessup and Alan Missen openly expressed doubts about the propriety of blocking supply to a duly elected government.

Missen was, like Fraser, a Victorian. He railed against Fraser’s high-handed carelessness on issues affecting Aborigines, civil liberties, women and apartheid South Africa. Missen, Jessup and other moderates regularly threatened to cross the floor in order to force change to legislation and other instruments of government policy. This inspired some and caused resentment in others. When Don Chipp turned on Fraser, Chipp knew that he could do the most damage through the Senate.

In the late 1970s, the moderates were the biggest and best organised group in the Liberal Party. But the early 1980s saw a new breed of Liberal emerge – and they were even less happy with the direction of the Fraser Government.

The post-War policy consensus among liberal democracies involved targeting and refining government policies to engineer desirable social and economic outcomes. Political parties had competed on how well they could target and refine; but a new breed of conservative politician began to emerge in the 1970s who railed against the idea of targeting and refining, favouring deregulation and privatisation. They perceived the economic turmoil of the 1970s as proof that targeting and refining had failed.

Fraser was a targeting-and-refining man, and for this he (and Treasurer Howard) was flailed by people like John Hyde and Bert Kelly. The success of Thatcher and Reagan overseas only encouraged them to criticise Fraser for not being so bold as these shining lights, and not reaping the electoral rewards that they were reaping.

Fraser held the line against both the social and economic liberals, using all the tricks of the master politician: playing one off against the other, bluff and cajolery. Being in government made this array of tricks a veritable arsenal.

In 1983 the voters took Fraser’s arsenal from him. Tearfully, he left the field. The social liberals (the "wets") and the economic liberals (the "dries") had narratives ready to go. Both groups could – and did – distance themselves from Fraser, forcefully and credibly.

Over the next decade, neither of these narratives helped the Liberal Party get back into office at the Federal level, but they did keep the home fires burning, attracting members and keeping them motivated. They also helped get Liberals elected at State level: Nick Greiner in NSW and Jeff Kennett in Victoria introduced socially progressive policies amid the economic rationalism, and John Hewson attempted to do the same federally.

Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

Federally, of course, Labor had appropriated both social and economic liberalism for themselves. Alan Missen died in 1984, but had he lived he would have seen his fellow-travellers battle to differentiate themselves from Labor. When the Hawke government downgraded the role of the Conciliation & Arbitration Commission, the decision was attacked by moderate Liberals like Ian Macphee.

By this time, the US Republicans and UK Conservatives had all but purged their moderate members from public office. The foreign exemplars of liberalism were also admired by the left: Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel. The moderate Liberals could not develop a narrative for the Liberal Party to use against the Federal Labor Government.

Not that the economic liberals had it all their own way. They never fully trusted John Howard, although they did respond to his call that "disunity is death". It appealed to those who were sick of the political embalmment of Opposition – never mind that "disunity" meant any departure from what Howard thought was right. Theorising and repartee in the party room grew tedious and susceptible to leaks, and few minded when decisions were made elsewhere and presented to the previously fractious party room as faits accomplis.

In office, Howard had the same arsenal of threats and inducements to his backbench that Fraser had, but with fewer inducements for dissenters. Liberal MPs in Malcolm Fraser’s day were politically savvy, with deep roots in the Party and community in their electorates, and could be trusted both to come up with ideas and to be sensitive about releasing them. Under Howard, Liberal MPs were community-based joiners with little direct experience in the machinations of the Liberal Party, let alone Canberra’s snakepits of money and influence.

Robert Hill negotiated significant concessions for Australia in the Kyoto treaty, but Howard refused to sign it. Hill should have resigned as Environment Minister and Leader in the Senate. It would have been hard, he might have been lonely, and he would probably have lost preselection. Today, however, he’d be a Liberal hero rather than just another washed-up junketeer.

And what was Amanda Vanstone thinking when she nobbled Australia’s higher education system and then followed Ruddock into Immigration? Peter Costello, too, could have resigned at any one of a dozen occasions over the past decade. All those characters who squeamishly told John Howard that he might like to consider standing down at some point – any one of them could have dared Howard to sack them, or deprived him of their services to demonstrate courage in their convictions.

Had any of these Liberals stood up for their principles, they’d be lionised within the Party and respected beyond it. They would have a narrative to keep Liberals focused and motivated, and to direct against a Labor Government that is for now tentative, and may yet become complacent without any intervening period of achievement. To do this, you need more than Cardboard Kevin stunts.

Today’s Liberals don’t have the shining examples of Thatcher and Reagan. Bush is fading fast, an embarrassment even to pro-US conservatives. The British Conservatives’ focus groups are a pale shadow – if not an antithesis – of Thatcher’s certitude. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Japan’s Shinzo Abe would be received politely but have little to offer Australian Liberals – their political climates are too different from Australia.

It was easy for the Liberals to distance themselves from McMahon in 1972, and they certainly had no compunction doing so to Fraser in 1983. But Liberals can’t criticise Howard because there is no such thing as an anti-Howard Liberal; such was the Party made to serve him that you may as well talk about anti-water fish. Look how unconvincing the former Coalition ministers were on Four Corners last week.

The Liberal Party is not descending into a morass of factionalism, because there are no internal enemies to fight. In 2008, the Liberal moderates have done exactly what their factional enemies wanted: they’ve gone, or they’ve kept quiet. Howard’s enforcers – like Nick Minchin, Eric Abetz and Bill Heffernan – are still there, but the more Rudd reshapes the political landscape without reference to them, the less clear it will be what they are enforcing.

The Liberals could just wait for Labor to stuff up, but they’ve been doing that at State level for between five and 12 years now.

By being overly careful not to make the same mistakes Fraser made, Howard has put the Liberal Party into the worst predicament it has ever been in. It can’t move forward, because it can only take direction from someone who is no longer there – and who no longer appeals to the electorate.

The Liberals have to distance themselves from Howard. They may be able to do it without being nasty to the man, or wallowing in spite, but it is an essential first step. Having taken that first step, though, where would they go? There is no post-Howard narrative to rally the troops and keep them focused. Just darkness, uncertainty, and the grind of being lumped with blame and denied credit.

For more coverage of Australian politics, check out our blog PollieGraph.

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.