A decade after the fall of the Howard government, Australia remains unable to escape or undo the insular and unfair policies it enacted. By Mike Seccombe.

It’s all John Howard’s fault

Former prime minister John Howard.
Former prime minister John Howard.

The political news of three Sundays ago was overwhelmingly about same-sex marriage, and no wonder.

Finally, after almost two-dozen failed attempts, the senate had voted for its legalisation. The next day, debate was to begin in the house. Expectations were high.

But in all the excitement about marriage equality, another political milestone went unremarked. It also was the 10th anniversary of the fall of John Howard’s government. On December  3, 2007, Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister was replaced by Kevin Rudd, having lost the election and his seat.

It was under Howard, of course, that the marriage act was changed to specifically prohibit same-sex unions. The fact that marriage equality finally passed the parliament almost exactly a decade after his ousting was more than a coincidence, however. It was a reminder of the extent to which John Howard’s prime ministership still haunts Australian politics.

As Paul Keating said, when you change the government, you change the country. But it can be very hard to change back again, as the marriage equality issue clearly showed.

Back in 2004, less than an hour elapsed between Howard’s announcement that he intended to prohibit same-sex marriage and the passage of legislation to that end through the house. Reversing it took 11 years and 23 bills – the first in 2006. It produced a long, internecine war in Coalition ranks, as well as a postal survey costing more than $100 million, hundreds of hours of parliamentary debate, and vast hurt to those whose relationships were under judgement.

At least that issue now is fixed. But there is so much more damage from the Howard years yet to be undone. And much that may never be undone. Examine almost any contemporary political problem, from Australia’s growing economic inequality to the declining performance of our school students relative to the rest of the world, to our dying coral reefs, and you will find the fingerprints of John Winston Howard.

Howard was the most right-wing prime minister we ever had, at least until Tony Abbott. Unlike Abbott, as ineffectual in office as Billy McMahon, the other usual nominee for worst-ever PM, Howard was highly effectual but in a regressive sense.

Let’s get down to examples, starting with the economy.

Saul Eslake, former big bank economist, has memorised a long list of the worst economic decisions of the past 20 years, and almost all the items on it are down to Howard and his treasurer, Peter Costello.

Eslake recites, rapid fire: “The halving of the capital gains tax rate. The senior Australians tax offset, which is if you are over 65 you pay less tax on a given income than if you are under 65. The introduction of tax-free superannuation for people over 60. The one-year window in which people could deposit up to $1 million into super. Decision to allow SMSF [self-managed super funds] to borrow to speculate in property. First home owner grants to buy established houses…”

All these increased inequality by skewing benefits to the wealthy, and older Australians, and by pushing up housing prices. To them he adds a raft of non-means-tested welfare payments, “notably the private health insurance rebate. And the baby bonus, which was appalling policy”.

He says: “We used to have a social security system that said if you, through no fault of your own, weren’t capable of providing for yourself and your dependants a decent standard of living, the state would help you out.

“Under Howard we moved away from that to a system that said, if you tick a box you can get cash. If you’re a first home buyer, if you have private health insurance, if you have a baby, if you are over 65, if you are a self-funded retiree, you get cash, whether you need it or not.”

There was no rhyme or reason to it, except as an example of class prejudice and to benefit those on whom the government depended for support: the wealthy, the older and the self-employed.

“Self-funded retirees were a protected species really,” Eslake says.

The Howard government could afford it at the time because it was rolling in cash, courtesy of the mining boom.

A few prominent economists – Eslake nominates himself, Ross Garnaut and Chris Richardson – warned at the time it was unsustainable in the long run.

“Chris, Ross and I all used to say that what they were doing was converting a temporary windfall revenue gain into a permanent erosion of the tax base and a permanent elevation of the welfare spending base.”

And sure enough, when the economic tide turned, the government had a major budget problem.

Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner “tried mightily to unwind some of these things. But it’s very hard to undo, especially when the opposition opposes you.”

Eslake adds that the current Coalition government has wound back some of these things, particularly some of the more outrageous superannuation concessions. But in fairness one should also note that they have tried to make up much of the shortfall caused by Howard’s generosity to the old and rich by cracking down on the young and poor. Think of the Centrelink robo-debt debacle, and the extension of waiting periods for unemployment benefits. The Australia Institute’s chief economist, Richard Denniss, calls this phenomenon – giving to the rich in times of plenty and taking back from the poor when times get tough – the “right-wing ratchet”.

The Howard government’s profligacy appeased certain lobbies. It abolished the indexation of the petrol excise, for example, to please the motoring lobby. It pork-barrelled flagrantly to prop up marginal seats, particularly in regional areas. Then there were the multiple rounds of personal tax cuts, skewed to give greater benefit to higher-income earners.

“If you took all the tax cuts under Howard – and continued a bit by Rudd – that’s the budget deficit of today, covered,” says John Hewson, Howard’s predecessor as Liberal leader. “The cost of those cuts today, basically, is the deficit. What any sensible, rational economist would have done, as every year revenue numbers exceeded projections, you would have hived that off into a sovereign wealth fund of some sort, to be drawn on in more difficult times.”

But they didn’t. They spent it on the middle class and the rich. Then came the global financial crisis – a year after Howard’s defeat – and Australia’s debt and government deficits have ballooned ever since.

Among the many ways in which the Howard government robbed the future, one standout is education policy, notably the way in which it damaged school education.

In 2000, when the OECD began producing its PISA scores comparing the performance of students in different countries, Australia ranked fourth for reading, sixth for maths and eighth for science, among 41 countries. By 2012, we ranked 13th, 19th and 16th in those respective categories, albeit in a larger pool of 65 countries.

Australia’s slide in the rankings was even more dramatic than those figures show, for there also was a dramatic widening of the gap between the best- and worst-performing kids.

The decline coincided with a change in the way the federal government funded schools. Under the new model introduced by David Kemp, Howard’s right-wing education minister, the amount directed to private schools, particularly elite schools, was greatly increased. Per student, the amount going to private schools went up by $1584 between 1999 and 2005, compared with $261 per state school kid.

The consequent shift of kids from more privileged backgrounds into the non-government sector saw the state system increasingly ghettoised.

In 2010, Labor’s education minister, Julia Gillard, commissioned the Gonski inquiry, which duly made the obvious finding that funding should be apportioned on the basis of need.

But again the legacy of the Howard government proved resilient: once a benefit is bestowed, it’s hard to take back. To placate the non-government sector, Gillard promised no school would be worse off. And so the inequity remains entrenched, and results continue to slide.

There are other ways in which Howardism inflicted lasting damage.

One of the first things he did on gaining power was to sack one-third of the heads of the public service. He brought in as secretary of his own department, Prime Minister and Cabinet, an abrasive hatchet man named Max “The Axe” Moore-Wilton. Some 11,000 public servants were let go.

Says Hewson: “Max Moore-Wilton represented a complete break from the tradition of the fiercely independent and objective public servant.”

The change also stripped the public service of a great deal of competency and corporate memory.

Likewise, Howard moved early to centralise power in the party.

“The Liberal Party has had three powerful leaders, in Menzies, Fraser and Howard,” Norman Abjorensen, a political analyst at the Australian National University, tells The Saturday Paper.

“The hallmark of their power was that the party became them, writ large. But Howard was the only really transformational one. He turned Australian conservatism in a way it had never gone before.

“Before him, the Liberal Party was a fairly decentralised organisation, but Howard took a close interest in every state appointment. He demanded to be consulted on state directors, to have a power of approval.”

And the party lurched to the right. Those moderates who remained, Hewson says, were marginalised in government.

Howard was first and foremost a class warrior, but in a way that slightly redefined class.

After Gough Whitlam, political historian Judith Brett says, “the conservatives lost a large section of the professional middle class”.

“Howard made a play for the un-unionised blue-collar workers,” she says, of which there were a growing number due to privatisations and other economic changes.

Howard called them the “aspirational” class. But their aspirations were often frustrated.

“Economic conservatism was hurting a lot of people,” Brett says. “Social conservatism presented a deflection strategy.”

And so Howard also became a culture warrior.

Brett has no doubt Howard’s cultural conservatism was genuine, but he and his fellow travellers on the right “whipped up these issues… drew out the social insecurities, gave them form and politicised them”.

The Americans have coined a term for this kind of conservatism; they call it “pluto-populism”. It means distracting people from the fact that they are being disadvantaged economically, by dividing them on social issues. Howard brought it to Australia.

People were encouraged to resent other groups – blacks, greenies, gays, migrants – and to blame them for their dissatisfactions.

Howard did this to refugees and to migrants. He conflated asylum seekers and terrorists. Then, in his next act of desperation, he turned himself into a wartime leader.

“Iraq was an illegal war,” John Hewson says. “It didn’t have congressional approval or UN sanction. There never were any weapons of mass destruction. Our involvement was about Howard wanting to ingratiate himself with Bush. And it was part of that whole protecting our borders ploy that began a race to the bottom, to where we are today.”

The imagined terrorist threat of Saddam Hussein has become the genuine threat of Daesh and other terrorists we inadvertently fostered. On the pretext of protecting us, the government continues down the Howard path of chipping away at our civil liberties.

Howard’s use of the military for political purposes took other forms as well, most egregiously in 2007. When his government was sliding towards its defeat, 600 troops were dispatched to Northern Territory Aboriginal communities as part of the government’s response to disputed claims of an epidemic of child abuse and neglect. The policy was dramatically badged as the Northern Territory National Emergency Response or “the intervention”. Shamefully, in the view of Labor’s Warren Snowdon, whose electorate covers almost all the NT, Labor went along with it.

“The intervention was harmful, hurtful,” he says.

“It demonised Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal men, in a way that was unreasonable and unjust. It perpetrated this fiction that somehow a blanket introduction of income management would be of benefit to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. All the research has demonstrated its failure.”

Howard’s response to complaints of child abuse in Aboriginal communities sits in uncomfortable contrast to his response to similar complaints against the churches. Notably, in 2003, Howard’s choice for governor-general, the former Anglican archbishop of Brisbane Peter Hollingworth, was found by an independent inquiry to have failed to deal properly with multiple abuse cases.

In the face of this and mounting other evidence of a widespread culture of abuse and cover-up within Australia’s churches, Howard did not send in the army. Instead he dismissed the findings against Hollingworth, saying “they do not have the status of a judicial review”.

When the opposition sought his support to set up a royal commission into child sexual abuse, Howard refused, saying it would only put money into the pockets of lawyers. He was not prepared to spend $60 million or $100 million investigating the churches. Close to half a billion was wasted on the NT intervention.

The distinction is obvious: on the one hand were pillars of the conservative establishment, conservative and white, personified by the likes of Hollingworth and Howard’s friend, Catholic Archbishop George Pell. Howard would never upset the powerful.

But marginalised Indigenous Australians were another matter. He sent in the troops, he removed what little self-determination they had, scrapping the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Infamously, he refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations, arguing that to do so would imply “intergenerational guilt” and embrace the “black armband view of history”.

Bait and switch, divide and conquer, blame the victim. That was the Howard way.

But his legacy is damnably resilient. And so, just this week we saw the authoritarian Peter Dutton, more truly heir to the Howard mantle than the flaky Tony Abbott ever was, and in Abjorensen’s view the most powerful force in the Turnbull government, emerge as the big winner in a cabinet reshuffle that mostly promoted right-wingers. Dutton will head the new Department of Home Affairs. We saw the nation’s debt up again, and the government recommit to corporate tax cuts, funded by welfare cuts and tax rises on the rest of us.

We see workers wages flat, mostly thanks to Howard-era changes to industrial relations laws. We see more backsliding on the greatest challenge of our time, addressing climate change. We see Aboriginal imprisonment rates rising, and a solution to our refugee crisis contingent on the whims of a capricious United States president.

Even though Howard has been gone from the prime ministership almost as long as he was there, we still live to a significant extent in his Australia. And though Malcolm Turnbull may be prime minister, it’s still very much John Howard’s Liberal Party.

Perhaps it all helps explain why, when same-sex marriage was legalised, although it directly affects a relatively small number of us, there was such unbridled, widespread joy. It was a rare victory over his dark legacy, and a chance to express the better angels of our country’s nature.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2017 as "It’s all John Howard’s fault".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription