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John Howard

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Hon John Howard

John Winston Howard (born July 26 1939), Australian politician and 25th Prime Minister of Australia, came to office on March 11 1996. He became leader of the Liberal Party of Australia in January 1995. He had previously led the Liberal Party from 1985 to 1989, and his political career seemed over after he was deposed. But Howard's opponents consistently underestimated his tenacity and resilience, and he made a remarkable comeback, becoming Prime Minister and winning three successive elections.

Table of contents
1 Rising politician
2 Success, failure, success
3 Howard as Prime Minister
4 See also
5 External links

Rising politician

John Howard grew up in Earlwood, a middle-class suburb of Sydney. His father, Lyell Howard, ran a petrol station and mechanical workshop in Dulwich Hill, a suburb near Earlwood. Lyell Howard died while John Howard was a teenager, leaving his mother to take care of the three sons. John Howard attended Canterbury Boys' High School, where he excelled academically, and went on to study law at the University of Sydney. In 1971 Howard married Janette Parker, with whom he had three children. Janette Howard kept a low profile during Howard's prime ministership but by all accounts was a shrewd and influential adviser behind the scenes.

After practising for some years as a solicitor and simultaneously holding office in the New South Wales Liberal Party, Howard was elected to the House of Representatives as MP for the Sydney suburban seat of Bennelong in May 1974. When the Fraser government came to power in December 1975, he was appointed Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs, and in December 1977 he was appointed Treasurer at the age of 38: he was known as "the boy Treasurer." In April 1982 he was elected Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party.

During his period as Treasurer Howard became attracted to the "dry" or "economic rationalist" theories associated with Margaret Thatcher but deriving ultimately from Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economists. Like Thatcher, he adopted the fiscal policies of neoliberalism without the more libertarian perspectives of the Chicago school on social issues. He favoured cuts to personal income tax and business tax, lower government spending, dismantling the centralised wage-fixing system and privatising government-owned enterprises. These conservative views dominated his subsequent career. He became frustrated that the more pragmatic Fraser would not embark on these radical steps. In 1982 he nearly resigned in protest at Fraser's big-spending pre-election budget.

Success, failure, success

After the Labor Party under Bob Hawke won government in 1983, Howard contested the Liberal leadership but was defeated by Andrew Peacock, and he became Deputy Leader of the Opposition. Peacock was defeated by Hawke at the 1984 election and, despite a better than expected performance during that election (most commentators believed that Peacock would lose in a landslide - he actually picked up seats), he began to worry that Howard was a potential leadership challenger. In May 1985 the insecure Peacock tried to remove Howard from the Deputy Leadership position, expecting him to challenge for the Leadership. The plan backfired when Howard merely stood again for the deputy's position, and won it. This put Peacock in an untenable position, and he resigned, leaving Howard to take the leadership uncontested.

Howard described himself as "the most conservative leader the Liberals have ever had," and said that "the times will suit me." During 1985 and 1986, with unemployment rising and the economy stagnant, Howard appeared to be making ground on the government. But his dour and humourless style was no match for the charismatic Hawke and his flamboyant Treasurer, Paul Keating. Howard's chances of winning the 1987 election were destroyed when the arch-conservative Premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, launched a populist "Joh for Canberra" campaign. Hawke won the 1987 election comfortably.

In 1988 Howard's position was weakened by controversy following a speech in which he claimed that Australia was taking "too many" Asian immigrants. The Liberal Party has traditionally been unforgiving of failed leaders, and in May 1989 Peacock launched a surprise leadership coup against Howard. Although Howard remained on the Liberal frontbench, his leadership career seemed to be over, particularly when Peacock lost the 1990 elections and the Liberals turned to a new, younger leader, Dr John Hewson.

Howard was an enthusiastic supporter of Hewson's economic program, with the goods and services tax or GST as its centrepiece. But when Hewson lost the "unloseable" 1993 election to Keating, Howard was again passed over for the leadership, which in 1994 went to Alexander Downer. If Downer had succeeded in the job, Howard would never have become Prime Minister. But Downer failed to make any dent in Keating's dominance, and in January 1995 he resigned. With the Deputy Liberal leader Peter Costello unwilling to step up to the leadership, the Liberals, having no-one else to turn to, recalled Howard, who became leader for the second time.

As opposition leader Howard avoided overt ideology and promised that he would "never, ever" introduce a GST. The Liberals released many policies which moderated Hewson's previous platform, promising not to cut social welfare and to maintain environmental protection measures. Howard campaigned effectively against Keating's "arrogance" and the "elitist" nature of his "big picture" politics. Howard won many working-class and country town voters (the "Howard battlers") away from Labor with this kind of rhetoric, although it also encouraged some extremists such as Pauline Hanson onto the Liberal bandwagon. At the March 1996 election Howard had a sweeping victory over Keating and became Prime Minister, aged 56.

Howard as Prime Minister

First term: 1996-1998

Howard's first success in office occurred after the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, when he responded to public outcry by persuading the state governments to restrict the availability of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns more effectively. Many of his own conservative supporters opposed these measures. A national buy-back scheme somewhat reduced the political damage which Howard might otherwise have suffered among (predominantly Coalition-voting) gun owners.

Howard and his cabinet used a budget shortfall, which the Liberals blamed on the previous government, to implement a series of massive cuts to education, health and social services. This violated or appeared to violate many of the pre-election pledges he had made. When the press accused him of having lied, he stated that some of these had been "core" promises. "Non-core" promises would not necessarily be honoured immediately (or at all). In following years, when the budget surplus re-appeared, the money was applied to other purposes, such as a private health insurance rebate, or income tax cuts for people on high salaries.

The Howard government did not have a majority in the Senate: the Labor Party, the Australian Democrats and the Australian Greens together had a Senate majority. The Senate blocked or delayed much of the Government's legislation, including the partial privatisation of the state-owned telephone company Telstra, increases in university fees, large funding cuts in the 1996 and 1997 budgets, a 30% private health insurance rebate, and the extinguishment of native title on pastoral leases (following the High Court's Wik decision).

Howard also had problems with conflicts of interest in his own government. He had tried to achieve a "clean governance" image by setting a strict ministerial code of conduct at the start of his term. This backfired, when a succession of five of his ministers (Jim Short, Geoff Prosser, John Sharp, David Jull and Peter McGauran) resigned following breaches of the code. Another two ministers (John Moore and Warwick Parer) were saved because Howard simply dropped the code of conduct.

The 1998 election campaign was dominated by two issues. One was reform of the tax system, including a goods and services tax (a broad-based value-added tax; the other was the rise of One Nation, a right-wing party led by Pauline Hanson and widely perceived as racist or xenophobic. The environmental movement also ran a high-profile campaign against the government's support for the Jabiluka uranium mine.

Howard's public image in 1998 was relatively poor. Nevertheless the Liberal-National Coalition won the November 1998 election, despite losing 49% to 51% in the two-party preferred vote. Labor leader Kim Beazley won a majority of the national two-party vote, but the Liberals ran a more effective campaign in marginal electorates, aided by new campaigning techniques borrowed from the American Republican Party. Although One Nation polled strongly, they did not win any seats in the House of Representatives, and their second preferences mostly returned to government candidates.

Second term: 1998-2001

Despite Howard's essentially domestic focus, external issues intruded significantly into Howard's second term. The first occurred in 1998 and 1999 with events in East Timor. Following the referendum in which the people of East Timor voted for independence, Australia contributed a significant peacekeeping/policing force to protect the inhabitants against pro-Indonesian militias.

Another major issue during Howard's second term was the implementation of the GST on most items except fresh food. This raised major concerns among many small businesses, who were not fully equipped to handle the accounting requirements of the new tax. However, the existing wholesale sales tax was removed, and the introduction of the GST was intended to introduce taxation reform. Howard was able to pass the GST legislation through the Senate after doing a deal with the leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Meg Lees.

During 2001 the Howard government seemed headed for certain defeat. The GST was proving unpopular and other economic issues were working against the government. In a leaked memo, the federal president of the Liberal Party said that Howard had a public image of deviousness and dishonesty. The government lost a by-election in a safe seat in Queensland, and Labor governments were elected in all the states and territories. Howard, sensing the way the wind was blowing, undertook a number of policy changes, including the abandonment of petrol excise indexation and increasing government benefits to self-funded retirees. These measures, particularly the increase in government largesse to the relatively well-off elderly, were regarded in the media as vote-buying, but in retrospect were politically effective in reversing a drift to Labor in this demographic.

However, the biggest change in Howard's political fortunes occurred in August and September 2001, when the government refused permission for the Norwegian freighter MS Tampa, carrying a group of alleged asylum seekers picked up in international waters, to enter Australian waters. The government's action was popular with many Australians who were hostile to illegal immigration and to what they saw as abuse of Australia's refugee program by "bogus" asylum-seekers. Hostility towards asylum-seekers from Islamic countries increased after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The government introduced tough "border protection" legislation, some elements of which (though not the whole bill) were opposed by Labor in the Parliament. Howard then effectively used this as a "wedge issue" to portray Labor as "weak on national security". Beazley and the Labor Party found themselves in a difficult political position. An electorally significant fraction of the ALP's working-class voters backed the Howard line on illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers, while the party's middle-class supporters were overwhelmingly opposed to it. At the November 2001 elections the Coalition was re-elected, with a somewhat more comfortable majority than in 1998.

Third term: from 2001

In the two years after the 2001 election the Howard government continued its policies of taking a tough line on national security and "border protection" issues, while seeking to further its agenda of conservative social policies and pro-business economic reforms. Despite its victory in 2001, the government still did not have a Senate majority, and its ability to pass its legislation was restricted.

Howard's reputation was damaged when it was demonstrated that one of his claims during the asylum-seeker debate, that asylum-seekers has "thrown their children overboard" in order to force the government to allow them to land in Australia, was untrue, and that the Defence Minister at the time, Peter Reith, had known this. Howard also had a difficult issue in the allegations that the Governor General, Dr Peter Hollingworth, in his previous job as Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, had protected Anglican priests accused of paedophilia in various churches: eventually Hollingworth resigned.

John Howard was also criticised over his refusal to defend High Court Judge Michael Kirby against accusations of sexual misconduct from a Liberal Senator (accusations shown to be unfounded), and over his statements of opposition to same-sex marriage: in 2004 he attempted to overturn a law in the Australian Capital Territory which would have allowed same-sex couples to adopt children.

John Howard with [[George W. BushEnlarge

John Howard with [[George W. Bush


But so long as the issues of terrorism and national security were uppermost in the minds of voters, Howard retained the political advantage, and throughout 2002 and 2003 he kept his lead in the opinion polls over the Labor leader, Simon Crean. Following the October 2002 Bali bombing John Howard reitterated that only his government could be trusted to protect against terrorism.

In March 2003 Howard sent troops and naval units to support the United States and Britain in the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. Howard spoke strongly about the need to rid Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction which he maintained Saddam's regime possessed. Australian opinion was deeply divided on the war, and Howard's credibility was damaged when by the end of 2003 no such weapons were discovered in Iraq. However, Australians generally approved of Saddam's removal, particularly since there were no Australian military casualties. Although some long-time Howard enemies in the Liberal Party such as former leader John Hewson and former federal president John Valder criticised Howard over Iraq, the great majority of Liberals continued to support his actions.

In early 2004 Howard was preparing to seek a fourth term as Prime Minister, at elections likely to be held late in the year (see Australian legislative election, 2004). If Howard were to win another another election, he would overtake Bob Hawke to become the second-longest-serving Prime Minister, behind only his hero Robert Menzies. But the resignation of Simon Crean as Labor leader in December 2003 and his replacement by Mark Latham appeared to make Howard's task in winning another election more difficult. Latham is 22 years younger than Howard (who will turn 65 in July) and by March 2004 his continually changing populist policies have given Labor a large lead in opinion polls.

During 2003-04 the Howard government was criticised for its alleged politicisation of the military and the public service, and for allegedly misleading Parliament over the war in Iraq. These criticisms came from conservative figures such as Malcolm Fraser and Robert Manne as well as the more usual critics on the left. On Anzac Day 2004 Howard made a visit to Australian defence personell in Iraq. This came amid a bitter debate in Australia over the war following Latham's changings promises to return Australian troops by Christmas.

On 18 May, 2004, Howard marked the 30th anniversary of his election to the House of Representatives. At a function in Melbourne, leading Liberals paid tribute to his leadership and his tenacity and persistence over his long political career. The anniversary also served, however, to remind voters that Howard had been in politics a very long time, and some commentators said it would help foster a "time for a change" mood in the electorate. The government's 2004-05 budget contained increased family payments and tax cuts for middle income earners, and has contributed to a recovery by the government in the opinion polls. Howard has also successfully exploited Latham's indecisiveness and continual uncertainty over his changing policy on withdrawing Australian forces from Iraq, portraying this as a threat to the U.S.-Australia alliance.

See also

External links

Preceded by:
Paul Keating
Prime Ministers of Australia Followed by:
(still in office)
Preceded by:
Andrew Peacock
Leaders of the
Liberal Party of Australia
(first term)
Followed by:
Andrew Peacock
Preceded by:
Alexander Downer
Leaders of the
Liberal Party of Australia
(second term)
Followed by:
'\(still in office)'