Howard Forgot to Govern for Individuals

By Kerr, Christian | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Howard Forgot to Govern for Individuals


Kerr, Christian, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Margaret Thatcher has been vilified time and time again for her comment 'There is no such thing as society', yet it is a statement of the obvious.

There is no one great mass in politics. There are competing interest groups with which individuals identify themselves-but individuals are the building blocks. John Howard forgot this. That is why he is no longer prime minister.

Jargon-obsessed academics have called the Howard government 'neo-liberal'. This, however, is nonsense. John Howard made no secret of his social conservatism. Under the Coalition government, social conservatism tended to translate into populism.

Populists don't like individuals. They like cohorts. John Howard didn't do enough to offer individuals greater freedom. He didn't sufficiently trust Australians with their own money. Taxpayers' money was given as bribes to key demographics.

If John Howard had given Australians liberty-the freedom to do what we want with the money we earn-the Coalition could have legitimately claimed that Labor technocrats posed a threat. But what the public saw from the Coalition after eleven years was handout after handout that stretched voters credulity and destroyed the government's reputation in the process.

Howard forgot about individuals, then compounded his error in the campaign. The slogan 'Go for growth' was conspicuously related only to the economy. All year, the government was unable to relate its message to individuals and their personal circumstances.

John Howard lost the 2007 federal election because he is a social conservative and populist, not a liberal.

The victors write history, particularly the quickie histories that appear in the aftermath of election campaigns. Former Labor Senator Stephen Looseleys assessment-that Kevin Rudd's decision at his campaign launch to stop matching Howard's spending promises marked the turning point of the campaign-now reads as writ.

But the truth is that Howard stopped getting through to voters long before. It should have been obvious when only the barest 'budget bounce' appeared in May.

'Mr Howard has developed a devastating politics of the surplus, which he has used to great advantage to deliver targeted spending and tax cuts at successive elections', The Australian editorialised just days before the poll. The politics were devastating, but lazy. Howard simply let the billions roll in from the GST and the mining boom and used them to buy off voters.

This worked well enough from 2001 but, as The Australian also observed, "The limits of this tactic have become apparent in the course of the campaign as key voters in marginal electorates have started to take both the tax cuts and the handouts for granted.'

The limits of the tactic should have been clear to the government in June, in the aftermath of the federal budget. On 8 May, Howard gave away more than $31 billion in tax cuts. The polls barely moved.

On the first full day of the election campaign he tried the tactic again, announcing a further $34 billion in tax cuts. Again, the polls did not respond.

In his campaign launch speech on 12 November, Howard promised a further $9.5 billion in targeted spending. By this stage, his election promises added up to $65 billion. All that money made not a jot of difference.

Again, The Australians leader-writers captured the issue. …

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