The Howard Years

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Roughly a year after the end of his government, the ABC has memorialised John Howard’s reign with The Howard Years.

A follow-up to the influential (though now largely forgotten) Labor in Power, The Howard Years gathers together hours of interviews with some of the key actors in Howard’s government, as well as the man himself.

Filmed before the 1993 election, Labor in Power was a revelation, partly because many of the garrulous and colourful characters Bob Hawke had gathered in his cabinet thought Labor would lose. In contrast, Howard’s government had already been booted out when the ABC began making this documentary. Key cabinet members clearly have an eye on the history books, and there is an obvious agenda of self-justification and record straightening from many, including of course Peter Costello.

The best interviews last night were with those that we haven’t seen commonly go on the record: for example chiefs of staff Graham Morris and Arthur Sinodinos, or Costello’s media flak Nikki Savva. Less interesting, or at least more predictable, were the contributions from the former prime minister himself.

One key Howard advisor who wasn’t interviewed, to the lasting disappointment of historians of the era, was Janette Howard. The former prime minister’s closest confidante was a key decision maker in the very small Howard inner circle. It is striking how often she was referred to in last night’s episode focussing on the earlier part of Howard’s reign; her power would only grow as time wore on.

Last night’s episode covered the tumultuous events of Howard’s first term: the deficit left by Labor, the Port Arthur massacre and subsequent gun control controversy, the rise of Pauline Hanson and the genesis of the waterfront dispute, and the decision to go to a 1998 election on the platform of introducing a GST.

Even so, there are important elements that aren’t covered. There is no examination of the various ministers sacked due to Howard’s strict early Ministerial Code of Conduct, and we don’t hear much about Howard’s clear policy agenda of punishing Labor power bases and supporters, like higher education, ATSIC and Labor-tainted bureaucrats. That’s to be expected: any piece of television has length constraints.

Even so, while episode one — "Change the Government, Change the Country" — tells us little that we didn’t already know, it does help us to understand some important aspects of Howard’s early reign. The obvious ambivalence of the Prime Minister towards Hanson and her agenda is contrasted with his firmness on the gun debate; likewise, Howard’s humiliating early brush with the reconciliation debate is shown as sowing the seeds for his later intransigence on the issue of saying "sorry".

What also emerges is a better understanding of how radically Howard centralised, and even embodied, the decision making functions of the Australian government. Bob Hawke, by contrast, had been committed to a consensus model of cabinet, and surrounded himself with powerful, talented figures like Paul Keating, Gareth Evans and Barry Jones. But right from the beginning Howard was prepared to take big decisions on his own in a way that surprised even his colleagues. The GST decision, for instance, was not taken to Treasury, the ATO or even his Finance Minister. Instead Howard essentially imposed it on his party by force of will.

The episode also reminds us, for those who weren’t there or have since forgotten, what a different country Australia was 13 years ago, and how unpopular many of Howard’s decisions often were. The rise of Pauline Hanson and Howard’s Queensland speech on political correctness show what has since become much more obvious: that Howard was a viscerally partisan figure, committed to fighting a brutal culture war against the symbols as well as the substance of small-l liberal thought.

This was not popular politics at the time, and it arguably never was, though later election victories allowed many in the media to convince themselves that Howard had some kind of magical compact with "middle Australia".

In fact, despite a 40-seat majority, Howard nearly lost the 1998 election, suffering a 5 per cent swing against his government and losing 19 seats. According to last night’s episode, Andrew Robb’s exit polls showed the party would lose office; the Prime Minister gathered his family in the Green Room at Kirribilli House to give them the news. Labor notably won the two-party preferred vote 51/49, but the big buffers built up by the Coalition in the 1996 landslide and the emergence of One Nation as a national party (it scored 8 per cent of the primary vote) ensured Howard was returned.

His second term would prove to be much more assured than his first: indeed, it started to dawn on colleagues and opponents alike that they had under-estimated John Howard, yet again.

As a piece of television, The Howard Years is fascinating viewing for political junkies. It contains some important interviews, a sprinkling of revelations and some really valuable snippets of archival footage. But it is scarcely going to rewrite history. And in much of the testimony, there is just the slightest hint of sanctimony.

But then, it was a pretty self-righteous administration.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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