Paul Kelly’s portrait

In The Weekend Australian Magazine, Paul Kelly interviews the Prime Minister, in an interesting portrait of the very ordinary/extraordinary man who has dominated the political landscape of Australia since 1996.

There is a online preview that can be read here.

Left-wing readers will reject the interview because it does not probe many of Howard’s mistakes, but in it, I think, some of the secrets of Howard’s success shine through.

If there is one single factor that you could use to explain Howard’s success, I would say that it is his work ethic. He works phenomenally hard. And he works smart. This aspect, working smart, seems to be something he has improved with age; the early Howard would have been more involved in every aspect of his government; now, Howard seems to be more willing to allow his ministers freedom. (Not that that is always a good thing)

That helps to explain why Howard is so lucky; in politics, as in most other fields of endevour, you make your own luck sometimes. It’s funny how, the harder people work, the luckier they get.

But there is something else that is the key to understanding Howard’s success; this man has a most extraordinary self-mastery.

It would have been so easy after his October victory to let rip and let his joy run amok. Instead he kept control. Kelly notes:

Howeard doesn’t like talking about himself and always prefers to talk about Australia. Witness his speech at Sydney’s Sofitel Wentworth on October 9 on the night of his remarkable fourth election victory. Howard, amid the sheer euphoria, stayed in control, desperate to avoid any hint of triumphalism. He presented himself, instead, as a servant of a great country. Mark Latham, by contrast, has spent too much of the past 12 months talking about himself.

Since then, he has kept a tight grip. Not all the front bench has been so restrained, but when they stray too far off the reservation, they are herded in by the Prime Minister. His authority in Cabinet must be incredible. When was the last time a leak from the government came from a collegue?

Combine that self-control with his patience, and his ability to get his way in the long term. It is little wonder that he has outlasted all his rivals and dominates.

I thought he was finished last year. I thought he missed his chance to bow out and retire undefeated- but then I am not the first, nor the last, to be wrong. I have to admit I am no longer sure he will retire in this term, either. Given his health, which remains excellent, why would he? Who would propose to force him out? He could well be in office in 2010 if he can continue as he is now.

That thought does not fill me with total enthusiasm. Kelly notes:

This brings us to the conundrum of Howard’s prime ministership. Howard governs from his template of mainstream Australia, not from the heights of lofty policy or the laboratory of neo-conservative ideology. As time advances, he seems less prepared to take the tough or unpopular economic decisions to guarantee Australia’s position down the track. What will he do with full control of the Senate? When I put it to Howard the widespread fear that, like Malcolm Fraser, he won’t seize this chance, he snaps back: “Just hang around and see.” It is an arrogant and unconvincing response.

But Howard’s vision of what he should and will do with the Senate is different to what Kelly (and I) would like to see. I have no doubt he will achieve what he sets himself out to achieve. It is just that it is not what I would like to see.

But until and unless someone else can come up with a more convincing tale of where Australia can go, we will be going Howard’s way. It is the safe and comfortable way. It has the nation’s confidence. It is evolution, not revolution.

However, in the main, this is a very good portrait of John Howard, and reveals a lot about the man and how he goes about his job. A pity it is not online- it is well worth the read.

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Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’ve always been prepared to give Howard credit for being a canny politician and for knowing where he wants to take Australia – the “vision” thing that Labor is desparately short of, as I said in a few posts. I would also agree that Australia definitely has a different feel from the Keating era – the degree to which that’s just change independent of the government is in a sense moot, as Howard has been able to surf the change and steer it in its preferred direction.

I don’t hate anyone and this is not meant to be a personal comment. But one thing that struck me about the Kelly profile is the way that Howard’s total identification with politics and his job comes through. Howard is critical of former PMs – such as Fraser and Keating. And he apparently doesn’t feel the need to recreate himself outside the job. Whatever one thinks of Fraser and Keating, Fraser’s tears on election night and Keating’s unabashed desire to pursue his hobbies (ie clock collecting) both give the sense of a person broader than just the political figure. Howard by contrast appears to be a political animal pure and simple. That may be the secret of his success. But I suspect the price he’s paid is a certain narrowness of character.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

That is a great comment. Is there a man beyond John Howard the politician?

I would like to think that there is. We see that he has a close relationship to his family, and sometimes, say, when the cricket is on, we see the glimpse of the man when he’s not in full political mode. He may well be reluctant to reveal that side of his character to the public- after all, he knows full well his enemies will use it against him.

But hell, I’ve never met the man. Maybe there really is nothing but an empty shell beyond the political animal. We have seen how the Prime Ministership has, in subtle and not so subtle ways, destroyed the lives of the men that hold it. After experiencing it, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating all seem to be somewhat lesser, diminished men, in differing degrees then they were before and during their terms in office.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

It’s a very interesting question indeed, Scott. Politics can both be all-consuming, and also a substitute for other needs – as I think we see a lot in the majority of professional pollies that now inhabit both sides of the benches (uni political clubs, union or political staffers, preselection). People who seem to survive it best are those with big personalities – Hawke, Clinton come to mind. What’s often remarkable is the way politics massively ages someone. Even to the small degree of my involvement in party politics many years ago, you also end up worrying about what it’s doing to you as a human – one of the main reasons I got out of it. Even if you try to keep up a “normal” life, it’s an incredibly consuming thing. I suspect a lot of those who have really jumped into the political pond at an early age have few friends outside politics. So it becomes not only a self-referential world (the “disconnect”) but also perhaps starts to shape one’s entire personality. Howard may only be an extreme case of this phenomenon.

I do wonder about the human Howard. In a sense, I admire his downplaying the personal (the contrast with Latho’s egocentric “boy from Green Valley” crud was no doubt to his advantage as well). But I just wonder what there is there. Whenever he talks about his interests – aside from Cricket (in itself a game of calculation and strategy perhaps more than many other sports) – we hear about things like his fondness for reading political biography and history – again as Kelly alludes to, something that he uses as a politician himself. Maybe as was once said by Sylvia Plath of Oakland, if you go beyond the political for Howard, “there is no there there”.

Somewhere I’ve got a book on the psychology of aging political leaders. Must dig it out!

saint
2022 years ago

Something about your pen portrait (didn’t get this weekend’s Magazine to read the article) reminds me of Flanagan’s ‘Sleepwalking with Howard’
(http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/10/01/1096527935046.html)

Howard the man hides behind the message.
Latham the man is the message.

Both come across as two dimensional in my view.

I was one of the few that didn’t even think for a moment Howard was going to step down a couple of years back. As for the future, I’d say you’d have to watch Janette for any signs of Howard retiring – she is the one who truly lives, breathes, eats and sleeps politics.
Her opinion as well as her health, would be the influencing factors.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

I think that there’s a definite solitary streak within most successful politicians. Bob Hawke and John Gorton are exceptions ( and their gregarious natures were both plus and minus). Latham, Fraser, Howard, Beazley, Keating, Bracks, Gallop, Carr….these aren’t life and soul of the party, clubbable Aussie blokes. Latham affects the persona – unconvincingly – Howard doesn’t bother. “What you see is what you get mate” as a cabbie observed to me about Howard, “he doesn’t bignote.”

Howard is a stubborn, obdurate, persistent little bugger who has no illusions about being “loved.”
He clearly loves his family with a passion and expects reciprocity from nowhere else. That is maybe a strength that he has in spades. He is also clearly an outsider: short, deaf, not athletic, not Paul Hogan. The unremarkable, not particularly gifted lower-middle class boy whose outrageously inappropriate ascendancy to leadership of the silvertail party drives silver spooners like Malcolm Fraser, Andrew Peacock, John Valder and Mungo McCallum to hate-filled distraction. McCallum’s latest book reads with all the objectivity that would have been achieved had the exiled Louis XVIII written about Napoleon. Poor old Mungo, born a Wentworth/McCallum and now he’s a has-been propping up a bar in Byron while this nobody is treated like a successful political leader. “He’s not entitled!” is the basic whiny-arsed message of “Run Johnny Run” and it probably works to validate Howard enormously.

I suspect – but don’t know – that Janette and John dissect their perceived opponents in forensic detail behind closed doors. Maybe it’s a form of catharsis that allows them to sail seamlessly on in public? Who knows?

I agree with Scott on the self-mastery thing but what about the strong mother? Hawke, Keating, Latham, Howard….all these guys were nurtured by strong maternal figures balancing kind of peripheral fathers…….but I’ll quit before I begin to sound like Oprah Winfrey.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Beattie’s pretty social, though, Geoff. Wayne Goss, though, was a real loner and quite shy, I think.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

ps – “bignote” is a wonderful Aussie-ism. Once my high school principal, Jacko, had me and a few other reprobates in his office and we were sternly warned that “bignoting yourselves” was verboten in the Kedron High ethos… yr right, Geoff, I think Latho has tickets on himself. Mad as a cut black snake, as well.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Paul Kelly said if the LIberals couldn’t win in 1993 after a recession when could they win?

He said Iron Mark had started a new type of politics that Johnnee couldn’t respond to.

And now he is saying what?

Keating would be the first person you would invite to a dinner party. Great company and awsome knowledge of a variety of subjects. A true working class intellectual of the old school.
Pity he was such a bad PM.
I tried to have a conversation with howard one time on cricket given I was told by an economic adviser of his he loved the game.
It was excruciating.

howard is the one politician of all I have ever met where it is his life.
That is why he won’t retire!

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“Keating would be the first person you would invite to a dinner party. Great company and awsome knowledge of a variety of subjects. A true working class intellectual of the old school.”

And he’d be the first person to turn the invitation down if there was nothing in it for him.

derrida derider
derrida derider
2022 years ago

I agree with most of the post, but not the bit about letting his ministers have their head. He is still a chronic micromanager, albeit a good one (your spot on about his work ethic and he is also an extremely good time manager). Nothing of any significance at all happens in this government without the PM’s nod, which is why people don’t believe he wasn’t aware of certain things he has claimed to be conveniently unaware of. And he is also still a great grudge-holder – he’d do well in the ALP.

Mind you, if I was lumbered with some of his ministers I’d want to micromanage them too.

Robert Merkel
2022 years ago

I’m unconvinced by this “Howard’s constructed a story” stuff, I must admit. I vaguely remember similar claims during the halcyon days, or so they seemed at the time, of the Keating government where the big symbolic gestures (republic, reconciliation) were proceeding apace. Out in punterland, it simply didn’t gel. All the punters cared about is that they were paying squillions on their mortgage.

Here’s my alternative interpretation:

Out in punterland now, times are good. They think they’re wealthier because their houses have gone up in value. Imported electronics are cheap. Unemployment is lower than it has been for a long time. Why would you change anything, particularly with all that debt piled up? Eventually, the economic excrement will hit the fan. Labor will blame Howard – after already having their lines on the matter fed to them by the economic commentariat even the current incompetants should be able to make the argument. The punters will be paying attention again. The Coalition will get the boot. Inner-northern Melbourne from Carlton to Coburg will celebrate. We’ll sign Kyoto. There will be an apology to the Aboriginal people. The republic will get back on the agenda. And punterland still won’t give a toss one way or the other.

Poly
Poly
2022 years ago

This whole idea of how better off we are because our houses have gone up in value has always confused me.
Yes on paper our assets are higher in $ terms BUT we still have to have somewhere to live. So if I sell my house and want to buy another one (unless I am buying a smaller house or moving to a cheaper are ie ex metropolitan) the new house will cost me the same as the old house and I will have spent a fortune on stamp duty etc to change houses. I am no better off than I was before.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Robert,

There is one thing wrong with your hypothesis.

The punters are paying out a lot more of their disposable income into mortgage payments , either owner-occupied or investment , than they ever did when mortgage rates hit 17%. Lucky they were regulated in 82 otherwise they proabably would have hit 27-28%.

They are very scared of any rise in rates.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Homer- I’d be interested to see some numbers about that – say a comparison between the percentage of income paid into mortgages in 1982, 1989 and 2004. It would be interesting to see what differences there are.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Great post, great comments.

Some points of my own.

I don’t think Fraser is diminished – he was a lousy PM (other than on social matters of liberal conviction, like race, refugess and perhaps to a slightly less an extent gender). Liberals don’t like his move to the left, but – apart from tenacaciously clinging to his economic irrationality – he’s mainly spoken out about the least defensible aspects of Howard’s Govt.

Keating was another poor PM (though surely better than Fraser). Perhaps he was a bit of a ‘loner’ as leader because I guess it was necessary. But he’s a very sociable person (outside Parliament!). I recall a post budget party in which he circulated meticulously round the room (and not just to the important people). He has a quite unassuming social presence. Pity he fell for his own rhetoric. He could take one beutiful set of numbers before the recession and then get the converse set of numbers in the midst of recession and go straight into the press conference claiming how great it was that we’d finally broken the back of inflation – a bi-product of the recession he didn’t mean us to have.

What a bullshit artist he was!

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Nicholas, why do you say he was a poor PM? I’ll agree that he gave up the ghost some time in 94 but for mine, he was a visionary and “leadership” was an appropriate slogan – and far more appropriate if only we’d known given the 8 years of steadily declining mediocrity we’ve endured since 96. PJK was a great Prime Minister and we are all diminished since he’s been gone.

MickM
MickM
2022 years ago

Mark, I have to agree with you on PJK. We now have the most corrupt federal govt since 1901,both financially (rorts) and morally (no responsibility taken by any ministers for any wrong doing).He may go down in history as a great politician, but not as a great PM (too many lies).

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Mark- better take off the rose coloured glasses. PJK was a great Treasurer; he was middling as a PM. Not every word he said in office was anywhere near true and I suspect some of his dealings with Indonesia will not bear close scrutiny.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Scott, rose coloured glasses come on after midnight I think and rose coloured stuff that one drinks in the glasses tends to diminish objectivity! You’re right of course. I’m a PJK fan and a sentimental drunk I guess!

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

I’m not sure about the “visionary” thing. PJK was certainly a larger-than-life figure, a great narcissist and had the inestimable assistance of Don Watson in giving him the words to construct the image of himself that he clearly wanted to project. I’d argue that it was ultimately at the cost of connecting with those upon whom he was reliant. As with Jeff Kennett, the overweening projection of self allied with a growing sense that he regarded the punters with indifference – if not contempt – worked against him.

There was also the dichotomous sense of PJK the noble visionary with PJK the down and dirty, amoral, ALP Right, political hard man. He certainly wasn’t the sort of guy who would publicly counsel against hubris.

Getting too big for your boots and taking the voters for granted is a dangerous intoxicant for pollies. In his later years, PJK often seemed to imagine that Australia really wasn’t worthy of him. In 96, they acted decisively to resolve that problem for him.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Spot on, Geoff. “The best way to see Darwin is from a plane at 30,000 feet on your way to Paris.” Who can forget that?

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Its quite a challenge to justify my point about Keating. I don’t think its easy to express what I think. It would take a long time, but let me start with this. If you want to fail, go into religion, not politics. Politics is not for the self indulgent. Its for those who have the alchemy to graft away to craft something good out of the chaos. Abraham Lincoln is the classic example. Howard is also an example, he’s grafted away in the chaos and brought about something which is now (surprisingly) a very solid achievement. I don’t like what it is, but its a very solid political achievement.

Good politics is also about persuasion. Keating wasn’t really interested in persuasion – which makes for a poor beginning doesn’t it? It means when you fall over your opponents manage a backlash. If you’re heart has been into persuasion, then you leave a lasting legacy when you’re gone – becuase you’ve persuaded more people to your view.

This isn’t a very comprehensive response, but its a few thoughts.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Both are good points, Nicholas, and both reasons why Keating was a fairly tragic figure.

saint
2022 years ago

Scott,
the appendix to the printed version of McFarlane’s speech to the Sydney Institute last year has some figures from ’77 to ’02

http://www.rba.gov.au/Speeches/2003/sp_gov_030403.html

http://www.rba.gov.au/Speeches/_Descriptions/d_speeches_sp_gov_030403.html

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Interesting figures. No wonder the electorate is sensitive to interest rates.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Mark, The irony is Keating could have been a great PM if he had Keating as Treasurer however Keating as PM wouldn’t have worn Keating as Treasurer so he turned out a poor PM!!

I hope you understood that Because I have a headache now.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I think I get it, Homer!

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Howard and Hawke have (had) similar Treasurers, but Hawke had more of a wildman on his hands

Robert Merkel
2022 years ago

WRT Saint’s figures, if you’ll apologise for the blogwhoring I’ve done some further digging (the speech was partly based on an RBA bulletin with a lot of extra data), and drawn another picture. The conclusions for the denizens of Caroline Springs are not pretty…

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

One of the reasons for Howard’s survival is simply the nature of the alternatives. What we really need now is for the Left to take control of Labor and Howard to retire. Then we can have Abbott and Costello v The Marx Brothers in Parliament.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

nicholas, I think Keating had a lot more to do then Costello.
He also need to take his party along the reform trail.

robert,
Have a read of Glenn Stevens speech to the ABE.
households have their worst ever debt serving capability yet look where interest rates are

trackback
2022 years ago

Kirribilli Kelly

Did anybody read the Paul Kelly interview with John Howard in The Weekend Australian? (No online version available, so I haven’t.) Was it the puff piece that Scott makes it sound like?…