Howard’s legacy

If John Howard were to summarise his legacy, he would emphasise economics. As he claimed in the election, Australia has a strong economy with low inflation and low rates of unemployment. With the benefit of asset sales and budget surpluses, the commonwealth has the financial capacity to do wondrous things, notwithstanding recent wasteful spending.

Yes, the economy has inflation pressures and faces possible interest rate increases. And there are uncertainties, this time the state of the world economy and the duration of the commodity boom. But these are hardly problems compared to the recession, high interest rates and inflation which the Hawke government inherited.

From Yesterday’s Fin.

The coalition also undertook important structural improvements. Howard never gave unions credit for their contribution to major economic reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, but he correctly saw that the behaviour of some unions – particularly those in the maritime and construction industries – was beyond the pale. And while Howards work-choices anti-union policies were excessive, Rudd benefits from a number of the Howard governments industrial relation changes – such as secret voting.

There is a bevy of other beneficial, though not startling, economic reform. These include welfare-to-work, an economically oriented immigration policy, low income tax offsets and the provision of family assistance. Although Howard never understood how to work within the federation – instead he made Canberra the font of policy and money – he did give GST revenues to the states.

This economic legacy is commendable. But Australia is more than an economy. And it is in non-economic matters where the Howard government was wanting and where it failed to convince voters. There were good moments, including the removal of the East Timor canker and the gun reduction program after Port Arthur. But the overwhelming mark of Howards government was the supremacy of pragmatism over principle, politics over morality.

To achieve political mastery, Howard engaged in sophistry: providing soothing words instead of answering questions and accepting responsibility. He danced around the governments apparent illegality in the waterfront dispute. He denied the governments inept eagerness to wage an unjust war in Iraq. He never accepted responsibility for the governments false claims about children overboard.

Howard also diminished institutions important to democracy. He required his backbench to place the governments political needs above parliamentary democracy, and only a few resisted him. He preferred ambition to propriety. If the government could prevent an inquiry, there was none. If the government wanted to keep information from the public, it was kept secret. If the government agreed to treat the opposition contemptuously, ministers concurred. The Howard government did not invent this behaviour, but it honed the style to a razor edge.

Although the coalition introduced a model public service act, one which requires public servants to act apolitically, it perverted the public service. The government taught officers to identify with its political goals. Ministers trained public servants to keep embarrassing information to themselves. The government ensured that departmental reports anticipated government preferences. Some senior officers even acted illegally because this served the governments purpose. And Howard allowed unaccountable ministerial staff to reign over the public service.

Quite oddly for a government whose philosophy is meant to emphasise individuality over the state, the Howard government reduced the rights of individuals. Asylum seekers who arrived by boat were imprisoned as a matter of policy. Contrary to world-wide practice and the spirit of the refugee convention, the coalition tried to deport uninvited refugees. The governments harsh dealings with unauthorised immigrants meant Australian citizens and residents were illegally deported or detained.

The Howard government granted sweeping anti-terrorism powers to police and security agencies, but it failed to ensure those powers were fairly exercised. And its agencies abused the law. Indeed, there is a suspicion – hopefully to be explored by a foreshadowed inquiry into the Haneef affair – that political pressures caused illegal and unjustified treatment of Australians.

Finally, the Howard government diminished democracy by encouraging undisclosed political donations and by reducing the time available for new enrolments after an election is called.

The test for a Rudd government is to sustain the economic legacy it has inherited from the Howard government while repairing the damage done to Australias important institutions and to democracy. It wont be long before we can measure its attempts.

This entry was posted in Economics and public policy, Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
13 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
trackback
14 years ago

Club Troppo

ChrisPer
ChrisPer
14 years ago

Perverting the public service? What, exactly, does every Labor government State or Federal do to the upper levels of the public service?

Hopeless.

When a lefty such as Gillard wishes to be nice to Howard, s/he praises his gun laws.

Sadly the gun laws were his worst action by far; he rode at the head of a populist lynch mob, which defamed a million innocent people for their race, sex and traditional values; then bringing excessive laws in which valdated a false prejudice of the new urban middle class.

All the other things you discuss are arguable responses to serious problems, which any proincipled government might have handled similarly and many would have done worse – framed through the spittle-flecked language of an impotent opposition.

No more though – the spittle-flecked haters have got their party up. I hope they are effective enough to do as well.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

Good column, Tony, although it’s not clear where you stand on the IR reforms or whether they’re encompassed by ‘the economy’.

ChrisPer, I’ve been working on a collection of expressions that Howard sycophants use to cast doubt on the sanity of people who don’t like their hero. ‘Spittle-flecked’ is great — good enough indeed to use twice in one comment. Could you oblige with some more?

Elijah
Elijah
14 years ago

gun reduction program after Port Arthur.

Yeah real “good”. Remove the boogeyman that doesn’t exist. *Spit*

Greg
14 years ago

‘Spittle-flecked’? Wouldn’t that be the person subjected to a spray? Frankly, that’s about the way I feel whenever I read comments, like ChrisPer’s, from the Liberal cheer squad. Maybe he meant ‘foamers’?

Robert Braby
Robert Braby
14 years ago

The two things that stood out in the Howard regime, both unforgivable, were:
. Lack of moral leadership – especially lies, deceit and exploitation rather than correction of public ignorance (e.g. on interest rates). These were part of his professional tool kit – shameful.
. Denial of climate change, which we have known about for 30 years! Short term political survival took precedence over the future of our children and grandchildren – shameful.

cs
cs
14 years ago

‘Spittle-flecked

Thanks fot he laugh, ChrisPer!

Rudd benefits from a number of the Howard governments industrial relation changes – such as secret voting.

I appreciate that Tony is trying to toss Howard a bone, but union’s have had secret ballots on serious matters for centuries. While I don’t suppose that all unions are any purer than all employers, this was always much more about fouling union processes than democracy.

cs
cs
14 years ago

“Thanks for the laugh”, I should have said. Too much flecked spittle! Oh dear, I’m laughing all over again.

Gaby
Gaby(@gaby)
14 years ago

Howard’s entire policy in the area of civil liberties, foreign relations and refugees was creating a bogeyman and hoping the spittle-flecked would fleck even more spittle on their way to the polling booth to re-elect him. Howard was committed to determining which wedges would work in Australia and the circumstances under which they would work.

Are you accusing Howard of throwing guns in the water?

Paul Martin
14 years ago

I dispute the claim to achievements economically. First, Howard rode two waves: the economic reforms of Hawke/Keating and the resources boom. Secondly, I don’t know how many billions have been spent on Iraq, but the fact that this was a big mistake has serious economic ramifications. For example, we could have had world’s best health and/or education. Instead, we have entanglement in an unwinnable war that has made us less secure. The Liberals’ claim as superior economic managers is just a big lie.

Brendan Halfweeg
Brendan Halfweeg
14 years ago

Howard was at best a caretaker-style PM with little agenda except maintaining and enhancing his party and the Commonwealth’s power. He introduced few reforms of any note, continued the steady growth of government, reduced federalism and introduced aspirational Australians to middle class welfare, like some cheap crack dealer trying to get leverage over the neighbourhood. He was no friend to those of a libertarian bent, even WorkChoices came with a regulatory nightmare sting in the tale. Howard made light work of riding roughshod over the Liberal’s small government credentials and have handed the ALP a federal government apparatus better placed with more power and more resolve to micromanagement everyday Australian’s lives than any in history.

rog
rog
14 years ago

Howard is copping a heap of late, I read elesewhere where he is solely blamed for the detention of asylum seekers and illegal migrants.

It was the Keating govt that brought in mandatory detention and then widened those powers to indefinite detention with Howard making further amendments. There has been no indication that the Rudd govt will change this situation other than to close down the Pacific centres, ostensibly to save money.

Paul Martin
14 years ago

As an addendum, and perhaps adding to Brendan’s comments (which of course I agree with), the only ‘reforms’ the Howard government made to the economy were ones that furthered their own ideological goals, and not based on any sound economic reasons. As Paul Keating has pointed out, this has well and truly been a culture war waged by Howard in which the result has been to steal from the poor (for example by starving public education of funds) and giving to the rich (who have received the lion’s share of tax relief and other non-means tested benefits).