Sunday, September 16, 2007

John Winston Howard, by Wayne Errington and Peter Van Onselen

A sympathetic biography of Howard, with pockets of criticism and cynicism.

Peter Van Onselen and Wayne Errington try to sum up Howard's recipe for success, which is to be 'in tune' with the electorate, thereby ignoring his predecessor Keating's so called 'big picture'. This is Howard's Australian Values as opposed to Keating's Australian Identity.

Or in the argot of the culture wars, Howard is against the 'elites', siding with the 'battlers'. Really, you do have to use a lot of inverted commas to describe these things. It's all so much about language. As the authors say at the beginning of the book, so much of Howard's success has derived from his superb rhetorical skills.

On the Howard political persona:

'The fashioning of this image owes a lot to his considered use of political rhetoric. There is little to remember him by in his political utterances. There is, in Howard's speech, 'no cadence, no poetry, no elegance of language.'

I wish the authors had elaborated further on how Howard's language has helped him. For, frequently during Howard's career he's had to walk through a virtual media fire, coming out the other end completely unscathed - smiling even.

Surprisingly, after describing Tampa and the children overboard affair, the authors are more scathingly critical of welcoming the Chinese President Hu Jintao to the Australian parliament. (The former is pretty well described as clever politics, 'in tune' with public sentiment.)

'Allowing the leader of the most murderous regime in history to enter the Australian parliament was travesty enough; the lengths to which the parliament went to keep protesters away and stop the Tibetan-Australian guests of Greens MPs from accessing the public gallery during Hu's speech made a mockery of Australia's democracy.'

These sort of criticisms pop up here and there throughout the book.

As to Howard's handling of the truth, the authors pretty much see having a very flexible attitude towards the truth as a must for staying in power for any great length of time. No politician whose in power can afford to tell the complete truth all the time.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the biography is all the interview material with Janette Howard. This is really refreshing stuff. The authors themselves in media interviews say how impressed they were with Janette.

She comes across as smart, astute, and of course, highly politically literate. The book describes Janette being left with the job of interpreting results on election nights to well wishers as they appeared on the Australian Electoral Commission's computer screens. (The PM of course gets all this info directly as it's counted.)

If only Janette spoke more candidly like this (which of course she can't), what a fascinating writer she herself would make. A book entirely on John and Janette's political partnership would make utterly fascinating reading. As it stands, we get these few tantalising snippets.

Here's an interesting quote from Janette about how both her and her husband, as a team, manipulate people (it was in regards to the agreement, if you want to call it that, between Howard and Costello over a leadership changeover):

'You talk a whole lot of things when you're trying to convince people to do things, but you don't go back and honour every single one of those unless you have made a firm commitment about it and John wasn't into making firm commitments.'

Indeed!

Another bonus of the book is the amazing interview material with Treasurer Peter Costello. What a loser and a sad sack. It's extraordinary that he chose to dump on Howard so publicly, and for posterity in a semi-official biography like this. What was he thinking? Did he think the Australian people would feel sorry for him after reading of his disappointment with Howard not handing over the prime ministership to him?

He comes across as a terribly churlish and self-pitying man. This is just another nail in the coffin of his own ambitions. If he was a stronger person, he would have challenged Howard. If he thinks Howard's that odious a man, he would have done so for the health of the country.

Errington and Van Onselen's biography of Howard is a strange book, or maybe it's the fact that politics is so strange and contradictory, that the book comes across as maddeningly inconsistent, is more to blame.

Howard is set up as the great leader, a master who stayed in power for 11 years (maybe longer in the unlikely case that he wins the 2007 election). Yet what the Howard years really stood for remain a bit of a mystery.

The authors say that despite Howard's reformist ambitions, he didn't do much. And despite his adherence to Thatcherism and the economic school of F. A Hayek (he told these biographers that he couldn't finish The Road To Serfdom, only managing a couple of chapters; interestingly, Howard failed maths at Canterbury Boy's High School), the Howard government has been one of high taxes and big spending.

It seems his best effort was to undermine the sacred cultural cows of the Keating years. These so-called culture wars are still in action, with the citizenship test being the latest theatre of conflict (Howard has won of course, with the legislation being passed by parliament on September 10).

On the culture wars, the authors note:

'The paradox of Howard's participation in debates about history and culture is that his rhetoric was not matched by a systematic plan to reform Australia's educational and cultural institutions.'

Also, they note that both Keating and Howard tried to conjure an Australia that didn't really exist.

What a silly fight this has been. The authors themselves think that Howard should cool it.

In the end, you'd think the Howard years have been more about image than substance. He gives the electorate the impression that he's tough on immigration, then ushers in high levels of skilled immigrants to cut our hair and look after our health. These types of contradictions abound in the Howard government.

Here's another funny one: For a man highly critical of the UN, flouting them when it came to the Iraq war, Howard had the knick name of United Nations within his family for the way he would resolve family disputes!

Judith Brett wrote a good essay on your typical Howard voter, basically saying that they were people who didn't care about politics. The apathetic voter. There's a quote I like that fits this phenomenon when the authors discuss the 2004 debate with Latham.

Noting how well Latham performed, Errington and Van Onselen comment: 'Fortunately for Howard, most Australians have better things to do than watch political debates.'

Yes, stay disengaged from politics and vote for Howard.

This is not a bad biography. There's plenty to disagree with. I dare say some time will have to pass after Howard finally leaves public life before we can get a better gauge of what the Howard years have really been about. I'm still mystified.

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