Yesterday, as part of his gig as the 2008 recipient of the Irving Kristol award, our ex-PM John Howard, told a group of American neo-conservatives that in the struggle against Islamic extremism there will be "no stronger weapon than the maintenance by western liberal democracies of a steadfast belief in the continuing worth of our own national value systems".
"And where necessary", he continued, "a soaring optimism about the future of freedom and democracy."
He told them a lot more than that, of course, covering just about every topic you can think of, from the importance of the traditional family, the need for choice in schools (he claimed his government’s policies produced the same outcome as a school voucher system), Iraq, Afghanistan, the "left/liberal" bias in the media and education, to the economic growth of China, India and Indonesia. He dismissed climate change believers as bullies, and quickly skated over his legacy of rising interest rates. It was a comprehensive summary of the man and his mission.
While he may be lauded by US conservatives, in his homeland Howard remains very much on the nose, particularly as a result of those pesky interest rates. This is something the man himself is obviously very much aware of, as he seems to have completely disappeared from public life. He’s out of Bennelong, out of the Liberal leadership, out of Parliament, out of Kirribilli House, out of the media spotlight, and — at the moment at least — out of the country.
Given the Australian public’s gross disloyalty in the 2007 election, Howard is probably as keen to see the back of us as we were to see the back of him. But just as Australia has moved on at a startling rate since the election of Kevin Rudd, if the past experiences of other Liberal luminaries are any guide, so will Howard.
Thanks to Sharyn Raggett
Back in the 1970s, Malcolm Fraser occupied the position of public leper that John Howard now holds. In fact, loathed as Howard is now, I think Fraser was even more unpopular thanks to his withholding of supply and the dismissal of the Whitlam government. "Shame, Fraser, Shame" was the ALP’s mantra at the time, and party faithful were exhorted to "maintain the rage".
But look at the man now. He is St Malcolm of the Anti-Racists, universally venerated and admired by the very people who once hated his patrician guts. His work in Africa, his strong anti-apartheid stance, his re-invention of himself as a guardian of human rights has been spectacular. Far from the right wing manipulator of the past, Fraser is now seen as a noble and much admired figure of the left.
He’s not the only one; look at Jeff Kennett, who was also the right-winger lefties loved to hate. As Premier of Victoria he destroyed Albert Park, gutted public education and generally stomped over everything progressives hold dear. When he lost office, the left danced delightedly on his political grave.
Yet it has only taken him a decade to move from large "L" Liberal monster into small "l" liberal hero. Thanks to his work with Beyond Blue he has now been sanctified as St Jeffrey of the Terminally Depressed.
So don’t write John Winston off quite yet. At a youthful 68, he still has time to undertake the traditional journey of ex-Liberal leaders from right wing villain to left wing hero. Perhaps he could use his energy and profile to draw attention to the growing unemployment problem on Nauru, or volunteer in East Timor, caring for small children in orphanages or making sandwiches for our peacekeepers. Perhaps he could put his ideas about practical reconciliation into practice and go and work with our most troubled and dysfunctional Aboriginal communities. Or devote himself to boys who fail at school, or small business operators sent to the wall by union thugs and an inability to fire at will.
Maybe, with a nod to Kennett, he could start a foundation dedicated to "soaring optimism" with the aim of cheering us up a bit, helping us be relaxed and comfortable at last.
These are just my first thoughts. I’d love any and all suggestions about how John Howard could begin to claim his rightful place in the pantheon of past Liberal heroes. I’ll even pop your ideas into the post so he and Janette can while away many a happy hour (sipping chardonnay, perhaps) at Wollstonecraft deciding just how they want to resurrect themselves as born-again lefty trendies. St Malcolm and St Jeff are waiting to receive them with open arms.
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