Howard's Strength

Article excerpt

As the tenth anniversary of John Howard's prime ministership was celebrated, commentators uniformly remarked upon his authority as leader: 'he is seen by most Australians', ran one typical summary, 'as providing strong leadership in uncertain times'. (1) Every poll attests to the accuracy of this perception. Here, I want to elaborate upon what that strength has meant in terms of Australian governance, to analyse Howard's characteristics against a model of strong leadership that long preceded Howard, to canvass the place of strong leaders in liberal democracies, and to suggest some of the benefits and costs of Howard's practice.

Howard's authority

Howard has dominated his party and his era because he has been a creative and aggressive proponent of a distinctive world-view. Judith Brett has shown how Howard, scorning the intelligentsia and determinedly committed to plain speaking, has fashioned an enormously powerful message that professes to speak for the 'ordinary battler', and to advance the interests of 'the mainstream' and a common heritage against vested interests, internal division, international challenge and foreign hostility. (2) How did he do it? He recognised four things. First, that Labor had abandoned popular nationalism in its pursuit of economic reform, and its insistence on what 'we' must do to prosper in a global market. In response, Howard skilfully took over the Australian Legend, once the preserve of radicals and the Australian Labor Party (ALP), insisting that there was an 'essential' Australian heritage to be defended, and turned its values--the fair go, mateship--into a story of conservative individualism. Second, he articulated what a disconsolate electorate was feeling: that Labor's reform was top-down: a series of injunctions voiced by the knowledge elite with which the rest of us were to comply. Instead, Howard turned the reform message from a mantra about the imperatives of the market into a story about how careful change would deliver more jobs and more choice. And he demonised the unrepresentative elites said to have captured the Labor party: he would govern 'for all of us'. This was, at once, a message of unity (he spoke for 'the mainstream'), and a way of marginalising opponents. Third, sensing that the climate of uncertainty engendered by change had generated disabling anxieties, he realised that, if targeted and organised, these emotions could be mobilised to advantage. The naming of specific 'elites' as the enemy of 'mainstream' aspirations (and the rhetorical association of those elites with everything Howard sought to overcome) gave anxiety a target and political action an objective--the restitution of conditions in which we could be 'comfortable and relaxed'. Fourth, the sheer aggression with which Paul Keating had sought to box-in the coalition parties by defining issues (Asian engagement, reconciliation, the republic) in ways they could not accommodate could be turned against Labor: this was the prelude to the ruthlessness with which Howard would later, as Prime Minister, reverse the valencies of political discourse to disable the ALP (3) in, for instance, debates on immigration and asylum seekers and the 'history wars'. (4) Brett, no apologist for the right, argues persuasively that Howard is the most creative conservative political leader since Menzies.

Paul Kelly, in his Cunningham lecture and in recent newspaper articles (5), provided a cogent overview of how Howard has consolidated power though his prime ministerial project: using public sentiment as his frame of reference (and justifying prime ministerial power as serving the public will); embracing a narrow vision of ministerial responsibility; running a tight, secretive and collective cabinet as an instrument of his authority, of obedience and unity; imposing more restrictions on the public service; and augmenting political control over policy. None of these elements is new. Howard builds upon trends already evident in the practices of his predecessors, but has carried them to a new level. …