Howard's End?: Australian Prime Minister John Howard, the Antipodean Reagan, Is Probably the Most Successful Democratic Leader in the World Today. after Reinvigorating His Nation's Economy, He Faces an Uphill Battle for Reelection to a Fifth Term. but He's Been Behind before. Duncan Currie Traveled to Australia to Find out How Howard Does It, and Whether He Can Do It Again

Article excerpt

OVER THE PAST 16 years, it is safe to say that, among developed countries, Australia has enjoyed the longest, most impressive economic boom. The policies that helped unleash this prosperity were initiated under the Labor Party, but they were enhanced and extended by Prime Minister John Howard, who by some calculations is the most successful democratic politician in the world. Howard expanded Australian trade, revamped the tax code, and eliminated the government's debt. The result has been a huge increase in the average Australian's standard of living, thanks to an economy that has grown at an average annual rate of over 3.5 percent since late 1991.

Now, however, as Australia, a nation of about 21 million (slightly more populous than New York state), faces an upcoming election, Howard's party is trailing badly in the polls. Perhaps, after nearly 12 years in office, he's worn out his welcome. But Howard, a savvy operator whose appeal belies his dull personality, has been behind before. Whether he wins or loses this time, Howard's impact on Australia will certainly endure. Americans have a good deal to learn from what he's done and how he's done it.

IN DECEMBER 1988, during his first stint as head of the center-right Australian Liberal Party ("liberal" in the European sense of favoring free-market economic policies), John Howard landed on the cover of The Bulletin, a prominent Australian news magazine published in conjunction with Newsweek. Dubbing Howard "Mr. 18 Percent"--an allusion to his dismal poll numbers--The Bulletin asked, "Why on earth does this man bother?"

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

While Labor critics skewered him as a "white picket fence" conservative nostalgic for the 1950s, many Liberals felt he was weak and uncharismatic. Five months after his "Mr. 18 Percent" cover, Howard was ejected from the party leadership in a bitter revolt.

That moment was the nadir of a remarkable career. On March 11, 1996, Howard was sworn in as prime minister, a position he has kept ever since. Australians reelected him in 1998, 2001, and 2004. He's running again today. The race has been tough, and a Howard victory would be surprising--but in each of his four previous campaigns he has faced serious obstacles. Tom Switzer, opinion page editor at The Australian newspaper, says that whenever Howard has received a kiss of death, "it's amounted to mouth-to-month resuscitation; he revives and bounces back with tremendous force."

It would be tempting to group Howard with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: three transformative "Anglosphere" leaders who shifted their nations' politics to the right. But while Reagan and Thatcher both broke with the fiscal policies of their predecessors, Howard embraced and expanded the market reforms that were already underway when he arrived.

Critics mock him as boring and wooden, yet Howard has cultivated a friendly stable of traditional Labor voters known as "Howard Battlers," the equivalent of Reagan Democrats. However much the media and academic mandarins may despise what they see as his retrograde posture on the Australian culture wars, Howard says he represents mainstream values, and his "average bloke" persona has served him well.

His story--the lack of outward charm, the years in the wilderness, the back-from-the-dead revival--has a Nixonian feel to it. Howard's 1989 leadership defeat came a few months before his 50th birthday. Asked then about his prospects of returning to the post, he quipped that it would be like "Lazarus with a triple bypass." How did he do it?

BORN ON JULY 26, 1939, John Winston Howard grew up in suburban Sydney, the fourth and youngest son of middle-class parents. His affinity for small business may stem in part from his father, a World War I veteran who managed a gas station and died when Howard was still a teenager. Howard attended public school before studying law at the University of Sydney. …