The doors swung open and he entered the theatre with that familiar quick, compact stride. Now 18 months since he lost his seat at the 2007 federal election, John Winston Howard hasn’t lost the spring in his step. Offering smiles and a few waves amid a reception of generous applause, Howard made his way through the seated crowd to the platform at the centre of the floor. Taking his seat, he glanced up at the painted ceiling of cherubs in the clouds.
Built in the 17th century and designed by Christopher Wren, the Sheldonian Theatre is the ceremonial hall of Oxford University. A marvel of neoclassical architecture inspired by Rome’s Theatre of Marcellus, it regularly hosts visiting statesmen who lecture to packed audiences. But on this late spring afternoon, 28 May, the Sheldonian was only a quarter full. The benches in the upper galleries were empty and there was ample space in the lower circle. It was a relatively modest crowd of around 200 students that came to see the former prime minister reflect on "the lessons in government".
Since bowing out from the Australian political scene, Howard has become a fixture on the international lecture circuit. There was the well-publicised lecture he gave in March 2008 to the conservative Washington think tank the American Enterprise Institute, part of an American tour that also took in the Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the George Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University. Since then, Howard has also spoken to audiences in Canada and Korea. His agency, the Washington Speakers Bureau, whose stable of speakers includes Tony Blair and George W Bush, describes him as a prime minister who "raised Australia’s profile on the world stage while gaining the respect and gratitude of the world".
If the retired Howard has the equivalent of a stump lecture, the Oxford audience probably got it over the next 40 minutes. Speaking about the need for "hope and optimism in our economic and political world", he offered a strident defence of neoliberal capitalism and parliamentary democracy. To an audience in Britain, following months of recession gloom and explosive revelations in Westminster of MPs abusing their expense allowances, this may have appeared more than just a little optimistic. Still, the case was made: "Too many people denounce an economic system that over the last 30 years has been fundamentally successful and has delivered unparalleled prosperity." As for democracy, parliaments (rather than "unelected judges" or "unaccountable international bureaucrats") remain the best means of securing liberal freedoms. There was also praise for the democratic process in India and Indonesia.
It was very much the Howard that most Australians would recognise. He spoke, as is his custom, without notes. The delivery was sinewy, the gestures remained unchanged: the emphatic use of his hands, the jerky movements, the shrugged shoulders.
Yet there was a renewed energy. Reminiscent of an American town hall meeting, he stepped from behind the lectern and took the floor to take questions — "engaging the audience", he joked. Carrying a microphone, he paced around the theatre, with hand in pocket. British undergraduates quizzed him about his views on Gordon Brown’s popularity and about the geopolitics of Asia. One self-declared American neo-conservative sought Howard’s insights on how to combat left-liberal media bias ("it is something we have to live with"). To one student keen to pursue a career in politics, he offered the following advice: "The art of political leadership is knowing when to listen to the people and do what they tell you to do, and knowing when to lead and do something other than what they tell you to do."
Eventually, an Australian member of the audience ventured forth with a question. "In light of the positive reaction to Kevin Rudd’s apology, do you have any regrets about your decision not to formally apologise to the Stolen Generations?" asked David Winterton, a doctoral student in law from Sydney.
"I dispute your suggestion that the apology was so well received," Howard replied. "I have a philosophical problem with one generation apologising for the misdeeds of earlier generations. An apology is just symbolism relieving the nation of an obligation to take practical action."
Earlier in the day, a dozen or so Australian postgraduates had the chance to spend time with Howard at an intimate luncheon hosted by the senior tutor of Brasenose College (one of the University’s constituent colleges, which was responsible for inviting him to lecture at Oxford). One student offered a heartfelt comment at the conclusion of the lunch, noting that he was touched by the magnanimity of Howard during the 2007 election, and that he would remember his concession speech as his best. ("I enjoyed it pretty immensely too," added another student sardonically.)
By all accounts, there were some robust, if not always so acrimoniously sharp, exchanges at the luncheon. "It felt like he was on the back foot," said Jennifer Robinson, a doctoral student in international law from Berry, NSW, who was among those invited. "But I think Howard handled it with good grace and humour."
Australians seemed to reserve their questions for more personal encounters. At the reception following his address, Howard mingled with 50 or so students, predominantly Australian postgraduates, who sipped fine champagne in the 15th-century Gothic splendour of the Divinity School adjacent to the Sheldonian. A photographer followed Howard around, with many students taking the opportunity to capture for posterity their encounter with the former prime minister. But there was also no shortage of students keen to debate Howard at close quarters.
"Shouldn’t Australia have some constitutional instrument guaranteeing our human rights?" asked one student. "We have no need for a bill of rights," Howard answered. "Look, you should ask Bob Carr about this. If he were here, he’d be cheering me on."
One pair, Matthew Albert and Kate Brennan, masters students who were Young Australians of the Year in Victoria and New South Wales respectively, challenged Howard about his stance on refugees.
"You said you would not take responsibility for the wrongs committed to the Stolen Generations because they didn’t happen on your watch. Isn’t it then morally inconsistent for you not to take responsibility for the wrongs in immigration detention centres under your government’s policies?" Albert asked.
It provoked a vigorous response. "Oh, come on, that’s just institutionalising symbolism. That would be like saying I was responsible for all the murders that happened when I was in office."
The question appeared to catch Howard off guard. "I think he was surprised that young Australians in Oxford feel so passionately about such issues," Brennan said. "He seemed surprised that we were not satisfied with his unprincipled and inconsistent approach to responsibility for those affected by his Indigenous and refugee policies."
Yet Howard quickly regained his composure. Once he did, it became clear that he relished the confrontation. When the senior tutor from Brasenose came to extricate Howard, showing some signs of concern, he was promptly waved off. The tutor had to return a second time before managing to draw him away, but only after Howard was able to have the final, unrepentant word with the ring of students who had gathered around him: "For every illegal refugee we accepted, there was one refugee in the queue who got turned away."
This, you sensed, was the real John Winston Howard: the political fighter who thrives on conflict, the stubborn conservative who refuses to surrender, the ex-prime minister who still feels the need to justify his policies. A man for whom the political afterlife has changed little.
If this encounter should be any indication, Howard remains a figure who continues to divide Australians. But his visit showed many of his young critics in Oxford a side of him many of them didn’t know when they had voted against him some 18 months ago. "He was still very dogmatic," said Robinson. "But he was affable. While we argued and disagreed, after the lecture we had a drink and a laugh." In retirement, this is perhaps all that our political leaders can hope for, whether or not they manage it: to be relaxed and comfortable.
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