If Cherie and Hillary Are Doing It…


The publication of the Janette Howard diaries will send further shockwaves through the embattled Federal Liberal Party.

Or at least they would do, if they existed.

Extracts from Cherie Booth’s diaries recently published in The Times have added to the woes of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. We can only speculate what impact a Janette Howard autobiography would have in Australia.

Janette Howard’s public reticence is as legendary as her pivotal involvement in the political machinations of her husband, making her private thoughts a source of double fascination.

How did the wife of the former Prime Minister participate in the decision making of the inner circle? What private grief and uncertainty lay behind her public stoicism in the face of cancer? What did the role of being the Prime Minister’s spouse mean to Mrs Howard?

We know that Mrs Howard did not regard herself as "the symbol of the women’s voice in Canberra because there are now very many, very talented women who have won seats in their own right and who are doing that", but in the main her private views were off limits.

A staunch Liberal who met her future husband at a Party function, one wonders what Janette might think about an ideological blow-in like Brendan Nelson. It’s also hard to imagine the former PM’s wife having overly kind words for the big personality and republicanism of the hovering aspirant, Malcolm Turnbull. And what does she think of that lingering backbench presence, Peter Costello, whom Janette and John infamously failed to ever invite to dine privately at Kirribilli House or the Lodge?

Although she lacked the public persona of a Cherie Booth or a Hillary Clinton, Janette Howard appeared to play a crucial political role in her husband’s career.

It was reported that Mrs Howard played a decisive role in the fiasco of her husband not standing down as Prime Minister in September 2007. Howard has confirmed that he talked about his position with his family "at length" at the time and that they wanted him to "continue to contribute", holding on to the Prime Ministership until the election. The rest is history.

What was going through Janette Howard’s mind as she gave the fateful counsel?

When the matter was explored on Four Corners in February this year, none of the inner circle of Liberals who were interviewed offered any opinion on Mrs Howard’s role in the leadership saga. And despite some willingness to criticise the former Prime Minister in the wake of the election defeat, Janette Howard has remained off limits.

John Howard described Janette as "my rock, my adviser and my life’s companion" in his losing speech on election night. Indeed, right up to the last Janette provided direction to her husband. In a pantomime exchange (at about 5.02 here) in the concession speech, Janette appeared to have to remind her husband to acknowledge the likely victory of Maxine McKew in Bennelong.

Many on Australia’s cultural and political left have reserved a special contempt for Mrs Howard. She has often been dubbed "Hyacinth", a mocking reference to the bourgeois character Hyacinth Bucket (who demands her surname be pronounced as "Bouquet") from the long running BBC serial Keeping up Appearances.

Notable ad hominem attacks have included a spray from Mark Latham, who indicated that he’d rather lose an election than be married to Janette Howard, while Margaret Whitlam famously dismissed her as "useless".

Throughout such attacks, Janette Howard declined to respond, maintaining a disciplined silence. Yet given the tenor of her response to a question about grudges on Australian Story in 2001, it is unlikely that she has altogether forgotten or forgiven.

The Janette Howard diaries would be a cracker of a read.

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