John Howard

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John Howard
John Howard

John Winston Howard (born July 26 1939), is an Australian politician and the 25th Prime Minister of Australia, coming to office on March 11, 1996 and winning re-election in 1998, 2001 and 2004. He is Australia's second-longest serving Prime Minister, after his political hero, Robert Menzies.

Howard became leader of the Liberal Party in January 1995, after having previously led the Liberal Party from 1985 to 1989. His victory in the 9 October 2004 federal election gave him a fourth term of office, with control of both houses of the Parliament, and made him the most electorally successful Australian politician of recent times.


Rising politician

John Howard grew up in Earlwood, a middle-class suburb of Sydney. His father, Lyell Howard, ran a petrol station and mechanical workshop in Dulwich Hill, a suburb near Earlwood. Lyell Howard died while John Howard was a teenager, leaving his mother to take care of the three sons. John Howard attended Canterbury Boys' High School and went on to study law at the University of Sydney. In 1971 Howard married Janette Parker, with whom he had three children. Janette Howard has kept a low profile during Howard's prime ministership, a stance partly enforced by health problems, but she is reputed to be a shrewd and influential adviser behind the scenes.

After practising for some years as a solicitor and simultaneously holding office in the New South Wales Liberal Party, Howard was elected to the House of Representatives as MP for the Sydney suburban seat of Bennelong in May 1974. When the Fraser government came to power in December 1975, he was appointed Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs, and in December 1977 he was appointed Treasurer at the age of 38: he was known as "the boy Treasurer." In April 1982 he was elected Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party.

During his period as Treasurer Howard became a staunch adherent of the "dry" or "economic rationalist" theories associated with Margaret Thatcher, which derived ultimately from Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economists. Like Thatcher, he adopted the fiscal policies of neoliberalism without the more "libertarian" perspectives of the Chicago school on social issues. He favoured cuts to personal income tax and business tax, lower government spending, the dismantling of the centralised wage-fixing system, the abolition of compulsory unionism and privatising government-owned enterprises. These conservative views have dominated his subsequent career. He became frustrated that the more liberal and pragmatic Fraser — who in fact had more in common with Menzies politically than does Howard — would not embark on these radical steps. In 1982 he nearly resigned in protest at Fraser's big-spending pre-election budget.

Success, failure, success

After the Labor Party under Bob Hawke won government in 1983, Howard was strongly attacked by the Hawke government for allegedly concealing the size of the budget deficit that the incoming ALP inherited from the Fraser administration. Howard contested the Liberal leadership but was defeated by Andrew Peacock, and he became Deputy Leader of the Opposition. Peacock was defeated by Hawke at the 1984 election and, despite a better than expected performance during that election (most commentators believed that Peacock would lose in a landslide — he actually picked up seats), he began to worry that Howard was a potential leadership challenger. In May 1985 the insecure Peacock tried to remove Howard from the Deputy Leadership position, expecting him to challenge for the Leadership. The plan backfired when Howard merely stood again for the deputy's position, and won it. This put Peacock in an untenable position, and he resigned, leaving Howard to take the leadership uncontested.

Howard described himself as "the most conservative leader the Liberals have ever had," and said that "the times will suit me." In addition his economic Thatcherism, he became known as a strong social conservative, supporting the traditional nuclear family against the 'permissive society' and sceptical of the promotion of multiculturalism at the expense of a shared national identity, views he has toned down but not abandoned since. Widely mocked in the 1980s as a man of the 1950s, Howard has turned his social conservatism into an electoral winner in suburban middle Australia during his Prime Ministership, while it draws the particular contempt of the cosmopolitan, left-leaning professional class of the inner cities.

During 1985 and 1986, with unemployment rising and the economy stagnant, Howard appeared to be making ground on the government. But his dour and humourless style was no match for the charismatic Hawke and his flamboyant Treasurer, Paul Keating. Howard's chances of winning the 1987 election were destroyed when the arch-conservative Premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, launched a populist "Joh for Canberra" campaign, temporarily splitting the conservative side of politics between supporters of Howard and supporters of Bjelke-Petersen. Hawke won the 1987 election comfortably.

In 1988 Howard's position was weakened by controversy following a speech in which he claimed that Australia was taking "too many" Asian immigrants. The Liberal Party has traditionally been unforgiving of failed leaders, and in May 1989 Peacock launched a surprise leadership coup against Howard. After a brief stint on the backbench Howard returned to the Coalition frontbench, but his leadership career seemed to be over, particularly when Peacock lost the 1990 elections and the Liberals turned to a new, younger leader, Dr John Hewson. When asked about the chances of his making a political comeback, he compared it to "Lazarus with a triple bypass".

Howard was an enthusiastic supporter of Hewson's economic program, with the Goods and Services Tax (Australia) or GST as its centrepiece. But when Hewson lost what was said to be the "unloseable" 1993 election to Keating, Howard was again passed over for the leadership, which in 1994 went to Alexander Downer. If Hewson had won the 1993 election or Downer had succeeded in the job or Peter Costello had ousted Hewson for the leadership, Howard would never have become Prime Minister. But Downer failed to make any dent in Keating's dominance, and in January 1995 he resigned. With the Deputy Liberal leader Peter Costello unwilling to step up to the leadership, the Liberals, having no-one else to turn to, recalled Howard, who became leader for the second time.

As opposition leader Howard avoided overt ideology and promised that he would not introduce a GST should he win a first time in government. The Liberals released many policies which moderated Hewson's previous platform, promising not to cut social welfare and to maintain environmental protection measures. Howard campaigned effectively against Keating's "arrogance" and the "litist" nature of his "big picture" politics. Howard won many working-class and country town voters (the "Howard battlers") away from Labor, whilst maintaining his conservative base. At the March 1996 election Howard had a sweeping victory over Keating and became Prime Minister, aged 56.

Howard as Prime Minister

First term: 1996–1998

Missing image
John Howard in the United States in 1997

One of Howard's earliest notable actions in office occurred after the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, when he responded by persuading the state governments to effectively prohibit the ownership of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. Many of his own conservative supporters opposed these measures. A national buy-back scheme somewhat reduced the political damage which Howard might otherwise have suffered among (predominantly Coalition-voting) gun owners.

Howard and his cabinet immediately tackled the budget deficit they inherited from the previous government. In a risky political move, his first budget cut back severely on government spending to produce a surplus. Since then, however, it has proved easier to keep the Budget in surplus as Australia has under Howard's Prime Ministership undergone an economic boom, with growth rates consistently higher than the Western world's average, avoiding following trading partners into recession during the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997 and the U.S. slowdown after September 11. In the English speaking world, only the Celtic Tiger of Ireland has enjoyed a healthier economy. This prolonged economic growth, and in particular its coexistence with low inflation and low interests rates (vital for the mortgage holders in the crucial suburban marginal seats) has been central to Howard's political success, in particular as voters hold it in stark contrast with the painful recession of the early 1990s under the Labor government of Hawke and Keating, which combined high unemployment and cripling interest rates. Howard has claimed most of the credit for the boom, citing his tough decisions to get the budget into surplus and to introduce a more efficient tax system as the basis. Although no doubt partially correct, the boom is probably equally the product of the microeconomic reforms of the Hawke and Keating governments, who implemented policies resulting in short term pain but long term gain, the beneficiary of which has ironically been Howard, and more generally a better than average world economy over his period in office, combined with a huge demand for Australian resources as the economies of China and India grow at exponential rates.

The Howard government did not have a majority in the Senate: the Labor Party, the Australian Democrats and the Australian Greens together had a Senate majority. The Senate blocked or delayed much of the Government's legislation, including the partial privatisation of the state-owned telephone company Telstra, increases in university fees, large funding cuts in the 1996 and 1997 budgets, a 30% private health insurance rebate, and the extinguishment of native title on pastoral leases (following the High Court's Wik decision).

In 1997 Howard's conservative views on drugs and his government's strong adherence to the restrictive drug regime enforced by the United States government led to him intervening to stop the planned trial of a heroin program in the Australian Capital Territory. The trial was strongly advocated by reformist ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell, a former pharmacist. She sought to introduce a European-style system in which heroin addicts would be licenced and supplied with medical-grade heroin and provided with safe injecting facilities. Howard's blocking of the heroin trial, which had been approved by all state Health Minsters, led to strong criticism from leftist drug reform advocates.

Howard had come to office promising to improve standards of integrity among ministers and politicians, introducing a strict 'Code of Ministerial Conduct' at the start of his term. However, the strictness of his code backfired when he when a succession of five of his ministers (Jim Short, Geoff Prosser, John Sharp, David Jull and Peter McGauran) were required to resign following breaches of the code, mainly concerning 'travel rorts' (misuse of the ministerial travel allowance) and conflicts of interest between ministerial responsilbilties and share ownership. Later, Howard was to tone done the strictness of the Code, and, perhaps as a reaction to losing so many ministers early on, would prove unwilling to require ministerial resignations for questionable conflict, leading to accusations that standards have actually dropped under his Prime Ministership.

The One Nation phenomenon emerged after the 1996 election, when Pauline Hanson, a disendorsed Liberal candidate who was elected as the independent member for Oxley in Queensland, used her first speech to Parliament to attack multiculturalism and reconciliation and allege that Asian immigration was leading to the formation of ghettos in Australia, and later formed the One Nation Party. Howard was slow to criticise the views expressed by Hanson when compared with his opponents and liberal party collegues, and his initial public reaction was to comment that he thought it good that the years of "political correctness" were finally over. Howard's unwillingless to confront One Nation was controversial with some, and led to criticism from some memebers of his own party, such as Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett. Some saw Howard's lukewarm response to Hansonism as indicating either tacit support for its sentiments (especially given his 1988 comments on Asian immigration), or concern not to alienate conservative voters who agreed with the One Nation's position.

The 1998 election campaign was dominated by two issues. One was reform of the tax system, including a goods and services tax (a broad-based value-added tax); the other was the rise of One Nation. The environmental movement also ran a high-profile campaign against the government's support for the Jabiluka uranium mine.

Howard's public image in 1998 had yet to achieve the status it would reach in coming years. Nevertheless the Liberal-National Coalition narrowly won at the November 1998 election, despite suffering a large swing and losing 49% to 51% in the two-party preferred vote. Labor leader Kim Beazley won a majority of the national two-party vote, mainly based on a scare campaign agaisnt the pain Howard's Goods and Services Tax would wreck on ordinary families, but the Liberals ran a more effective campaign in marginal electorates, aided by new campaigning techniques borrowed from the US Republican Party and emphasising to these mortgage belt voters the lower interest rates than under Labor. Although One Nation polled strongly, they did not win any seats in the House of Representatives, and their second preferences mostly returned to government candidates.

Second term: 1998–2001

Despite Howard's essentially domestic focus, external issues intruded significantly into Howard's second term. The first occurred in 1998 and 1999 with events in East Timor. Following the referendum in which the people of East Timor voted for independence, Australia contributed a significant peacekeeping/policing force to protect the inhabitants against pro-Indonesian militias, attracting wide praise both domestically and abroad.

Another major issue during Howard's second term was the implementation of the GST on most items except fresh food. This raised major concerns among many small businesses, who were not fully equipped to handle the accounting requirements of the new tax, which effectively off-loaded much of the day-to-day work of taxation accounting from the Taxation Department to individual business people. However, the existing wholesale sales tax was removed, and the introduction of the GST was intended to introduce taxation reform. Howard was able to pass the GST legislation through the Senate after making a controversial deal with Senator Meg Lees, leader of the Australian Democrats, who at that time held the balance of power in the Senate.

During 2001 the Howard government's image was poor, due largely its focus on a lack-luster tax reform agenda which, whilst successful at improving the economy, was not politically popular at that time. The government lost a by-election in the normally safe electorate of Ryan in Queensland, and Labor governments were elected in all the states and territories. In response to the declining position at this time a number of policy changes were made, including the abandonment of petrol excise indexation and increased government benefits to self-funded retirees.

A major change in Howard's political fortunes occurred in August and September 2001, when the government refused permission for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, carrying a group of asylum seekers picked up in international waters, to enter Australian waters. The government's action was popular with many Australians who were hostile to illegal immigration and to what they saw as abuse of Australia's refugee program by "bogus" asylum-seekers. After the 11 September terrorist attacks, hostility towards asylum-seekers from Islamic countries increased, and a climate of domestic insecurity contributed to a rally of support for incumbent governments in Australia.

The government introduced tough "border protection" legislation, some elements of which (though not the whole bill) were opposed by Labor in the Parliament. Howard then effectively used this as a "wedge issue" to portray Labor as "weak on national security". Beazley and the Labor Party found themselves in a difficult political position. An electorally significant fraction of the ALP's working-class voters backed the Howard line on illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers, while the party's middle-class supporters were overwhelmingly opposed to it. At the November 2001 elections the Coalition was re-elected, with a more comfortable majority than in 1998.

Third term: 2001–2004

In the two years after the 2001 election the Howard government continued its policies of taking a tough line on national security and "border protection" issues, while seeking to further its agenda of conservative social policies and pro-business economic reforms. Despite its victory in 2001, the government still did not have a Senate majority, and its ability to pass planned legislation was restricted.

Howard's reputation was damaged in what became known as the Children overboard affair, when it was demonstrated that one of his claims during the asylum-seeker debate, that asylum-seekers has "thrown their children overboard" in order to force the government to allow them to land in Australia, was probably untrue. Howard also faced a difficult issue in the allegations that Howard's choice as Governor General, Dr Peter Hollingworth, in his previous job as Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, had refused to investigate Anglican priests accused of paedophilia in various churches: eventually Hollingworth was forced to resign amidst a storm of controversy that threatened to damage the credibility of his office.

John Howard with
John Howard with George W. Bush

So long as the issue of national security was prominent in the minds of voters and the Australian economy remained strong, Howard retained a clear political advantage over his opponents. Throughout 2002 and 2003 he kept his lead in the opinion polls over the then Labor leader, Simon Crean. Following the October 2002 Bali bombing Howard placed a renewed emphasis on his government's approach to national security.

In March 2003 Howard sent troops and naval units to support the United States and Britain in the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. Howard spoke strongly about the need to rid Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction [1] ( which he maintained Saddam's regime possessed. Australian opinion was deeply divided on the war and large public protests occurred. [2] ( Several senior figures from the Liberal party, including former president of the Liberal Party and Howard's former friend and colleague, [3] ( John Valder, former opposition leader John Hewson [4] ( and former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser [5] ( publicly criticised Howard over Iraq. John Valder's criticism was particularly strong, claiming that Howard should be tried and punished as a war criminal [6] ( Howard's credibility was damaged in the eyes of some when by the end of 2003 no weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq. Despite these controversies, Howard maintained strong support from large sections of the population and had begun to enjoy cult-status amongst the conservative population. No Australian military casualties occurred and many believed that Saddam's removal meant the war was vindicated overall.

During 2003-04 the Howard government was criticised for its involvement in the Iraq War and support for U.S. President George W. Bush. These criticisms came from figures such as former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and political commentator Robert Manne, as well as from within the intelligence community, the military, and the public service. On Anzac Day 2004 Howard made a visit to Australian defence personnel in Iraq. This came amid a bitter debate in Australia over the war following Latham's promise to return Australian troops by Christmas.

On 18 May, 2004, Howard marked the 30th anniversary of his election to the House of Representatives. At a function in Melbourne, leading Liberals paid tribute to his leadership and his tenacity and persistence over his long political career. The anniversary also served, however, to remind voters that Howard had been in politics a very long time, and some commentators said it would help foster a "time for a change" mood in the electorate. The government's 200405 budget contained increased family payments and tax cuts for middle income earners, and contributed to a recovery by the government in the opinion polls. Howard also successfully exploited what he called Latham's indecisiveness over withdrawing Australian forces from Iraq, portraying this as a threat to the U.S.-Australia alliance.

Fourth term: 2004–present

On 29 August 2004 Howard called an election for 9 October. The Labor opposition, after the resignation of Simon Crean and the election of Mark Latham as leader in December 2003, had established a lead in some opinion polls by March 2004 and the Liberal / National Coalition, led by Howard, entered the election campaign behind Labor in all the published national opinion polls. Howard himself still had a large lead over Latham as preferred Prime Minister in those same polls and most commentators regarded the result as being too close to call.

During the campaign, Howard attacked Latham's economic record as mayor of Liverpool City Council, claiming that election of a Labor government would lead to higher interest rates. In the closing period of the election campaign, Howard unveiled a large spending program on health, education, small business and family payments with the aim of trumping Latham's policy strengths. Some economists, however, criticised Howard for the scale of his election spending promoses, saying the Thatcherite small government man of the 1980s and the 1996 budget had mutated into a pure political pragamtist, willing to spend big on 'middle class welfare' to win votes. It was generally agreed by media and political commentators that Latham had the better of Howard in the sole debate during the campaign, and some opinion polls continued to suggest a very close race until the last days of the campaign. The result of the election was that Howard won an increased majority in the House of Representatives and also won a majority in the Senate, the first Government since Malcolm Fraser in 1975 to do so. The perceived success of Australian economy under Howard's leadership may have helped him to retain the "battler" vote which, combined with his his strong conservative base, gave the Coalition a election victory of 52.74% of the vote on a two party preffered basis against Labor's result of 47.26% [7] ( Howard's social conservatism also helped him to win vital preferences from the new Christian-based party Family First.

The likelihood that he would soon retire in favour of his deputy, Peter Costello, immediately receded and the new situation in the Senate, which comes into effect in July 2005, will give the government the opportunity to pass all the legislation which had previously been blocked in the upper house including:

  • Full privatisation of the 50.1% state-owned telecommunications company Telstra;
  • Changes to industrial relations laws to exempt small businesses from unfair dismissal legislation; increase individual employment contracts; weaken the power of the trade unions and attempt to co-opt state industrial relations regimes;
  • Revising media ownership laws so as to remove restrictions on media companies having control over multiple different media;
  • In universities, the implementation of Voluntary Student Unionism and the reduction of the power of tertiary staff unions in negotiating employment conditions;

On the 21 December 2004 Howard became Australia's second-longest serving Prime Minister and had led the government against four Labor opposition leaders, Keating, Beasley, Crean and Latham.

The Government response to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake was widely acclaimed in Australia and abroad, including the Opposition shadow foreign affairs spokesperson, Kevin Rudd, who said that an Australian Labor Party government could not have done more (Labor leader, Mark Latham, remained silent while ill and on holidays). Howard is also credited with suggesting the national day of mourning commemorations on 16 January 2005 with people using a sprig of acacia for remembrance of those who died or were dispossessed.

On February 22, 2005 Howard announced that Australia would increase its military commitment to Iraq [8] ( with an additional 450 troops although he had made firm assurances before the election five months earlier that no such increases would occur. [9] ( On April 14, another firm pre-election assurance was broken when it was announced that the Medicare safety net policy presented to the electorate prior to the election, and statements by the Health Minister Tony Abbott that the policy was "an absolutely rock solid, iron-clad commitment", would now be adjusted to provide fewer benefits.

Throughout the first half of 2005, the Howard government faced increasing pressure regarding its controversial mandatory detention program. It was revealed in February that a mentally ill Australian citizen, Cornelia Rau had been held in detention for nine months. The government then established the closed non-judical Palmer Inquiry promising that the findings would be made public. In May, it was revealed that another Australian, subsequently identified as Vivian Alvarez had been deported from Australia and that the department responsible was unable to locate her. By late May, it was revealed that an additional 200 cases of possible wrongful detention had been refered to the Palmer Inquiry.[10] ( [11] (,10117,15410506-2,00.html) and also at this time Howard faced backbench revolt from small numbers of his own government demanding that reforms be made.[12] ( On June 2, it was revealed [13] ( that Cornelia Rau had been identified by the department as an Australian citizen 3 months prior to her final release from detention. On June 9, Australia's longest serving detainee, Peter Qasim, was moved to a psychiatric hospital. [14] (

See also

Further reading

External links



  • Hansard, 2003-02-04  ( Howard's speech to parliament in which he puts forward his claims of imminent threat from Iraq as reasons for Australian support of the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Manildra affair

Preceded by:
Bill Hayden
Treasurer of Australia
Succeeded by:
Paul Keating
Preceded by:
Andrew Peacock
Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
Succeeded by:
Andrew Peacock
Preceded by:
Alexander Downer
Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia
Succeeded by:
Preceded by:
Paul Keating
Prime Minister of Australia
Succeeded by:

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