The Howard Years: An Evaluation
Wear, Rae, The Australian Journal of Politics and History
The Times Will Suit Them: Postmodern Conservatism in Australia. By Geoff Boucher and Martin Sharpe (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2008), $35.00 pb.
John Howard and the Conservative Tradition. By Norman Abjorensen (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008), $39.95 pb.
Liberals and Power: The Road Ahead. Edited by Peter van Onselen (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008), $36.99 pb.
The Costello Memoir. By Peter Costello with Peter Coleman (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008), $54.99 hb.
If a week is a long time in politics, two years is an aeon. John Howard not only conceded the defeat of his government on 24 November 2007, but also lost his seat of Bennelong as well. He was thus removed swiftly from the political stage which he had dominated for eleven years. The Rudd government's first official act was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Within six months, the government had also dismantled John Howard's Pacific Solution, whereby asylum-seekers were processed offshore in detention facilities on Nauru and Manus Island, and offered an apology to Indigenous people for their past mistreatment. Although critics complained of symbolism without substance, (1) Rudd's steps were ones that Howard had refused to take. In no time at all, it seemed that the Howard years were history, an impression hastened by the global economic crisis and its overturning of settled assumptions about the roles of government and markets.
Four recent books--two by academics and two written largely by politicians--evaluate the Howard years. One consideration shared by them all is how to understand and place Howard ideologically. The academics, Geoff Boucher and Matthew Sharpe in The Times Will Suit Them: Postmodern Conservatism in Australia and Norman Abjorensen in John Howard and the Conservative Tradition place Howard in the conservative camp, with qualifications. To Boucher and Sharpe, Howard is a "postmodern conservative" while to Abjorensen he is "a conservative iconoclast". Both books highlight the way he used the politics of fear and both explore the centrality of the culture wars in cementing his authority. Boucher, Sharpe and Abjorensen all judge him harshly and although the authors take different routes to their conclusions, they all decide that there was something sui generis about Howard. Liberals and Power, a collection edited by Peter van Onselen and The Costello Memoirs, written by Peter Costello in collaboration with Peter Coleman, judge Howard's contribution much more positively. The authors see the former prime minister's beliefs as a blend of conservatism and liberalism, a mix which some authors see as potentially in conflict and which others perceive as unproblematic. What emerges from a reading of all four books is a striking lack of consensus about what terms such as liberalism and conservatism mean.
At first glance, to label Howard post-modernist, as Boucher and Sharpe do, seems perverse, especially given the former prime minister's attacks on post-modernism and cultural relativism in the teaching of high school English and literatures and his claims for the existence of "enduring values of the national character". (3) Boucher and Sharpe argue, however, that a worldview "which pitches Western values against external and internal enemies in a power struggle [is] every bit as relativistic as that which they [the Right's cultural warriors] decry on the left". (4) They contend that although Howard often appeared to be appealing to universal values, in practice he tapped into mainstream values independent of moral principle. A good example of this was his response to condemnation of his government's refusal to allow Tampa refugees to land in Australia in August 2001. At the time, Howard declared: "We have sought on all occasions to balance against the undoubted right of this country to decide who comes here [...] our humanitarian obligations as a warm-hearted, decent international citizen". …