Bill Bowtell

We can win the election, but he cannot,” was Peter Costello’s blunt assessment of the Coalition’s prospects were John Howard to lead it into the 2007 election.

A year ago, not many observers of Australian politics agreed with Costello. Most professional commentators were sure that John Howard would coast to an easy victory on the back of a buoyant economy. They dismissed Costello as a self-interested Cassandra (perhaps forgetting that Cassandra was proven correct). One of the few who shared Costello’s view was the long-time historian and scholar of the Liberal Party, Judith Brett.

She believed that the times no longer suited John Howard and was convinced that he would not prevail against Kevin Rudd.

Backing her conviction, Brett staked her claim on the first post-election Quarterly Essay to explain the reasons for John Howard’s defeat. In it, she argued persuasively that John Howard was simply too old, too dogmatic and too out of touch with the shifting centre of Australian public opinion to counteract Kevin Rudd’s drive, dynamism and fresh-faced appeal.

Yet her compelling Quarterly Essay also points the way to an explanation for the Howard government’s decline and fall that is more complex and more significant than the argument that ageing leaders are generally unable to come to terms with their own obsolescence.

The most significant question posed by the 2007 debacle is precisely why did the Liberal Party throw it all away. Why, when all the economic winds were set fair, and the political shoals to be negotiated were not especially hazardous, did the crew of the Liberal ship of state allow its captain to steer indefatigably to the extreme right? Even when the cliffs loomed above them, and disaster was imminent, why did they not toss Howard overboard and set a new course?

Was Peter Costello right in asserting that the election was winnable for the government but only without John Howard? Or was it the case, as Judith Brett believes, that the Liberal Party no longer had the means or the will to act independently of its leader?

Costello was understandably keen to succeed to the prime ministership rather than become leader of the opposition. Throughout 2007, he stridently made the case for John Howard’s early departure to his party colleagues and the press gallery and, through them, to the public. He asserted that a simple change of leader was all that was required for the Coalition government to prevail at the 2007 election. Costello might have been acting from self-interest, but he also had the weight of evidence on his side. From the day of Kevin Rudd’s elevation to the Labor leadership, the direction of the polls was undeniably wretched news for the Coalition government. Rudd and the Labor Party maintained handsome leads over Howard and the government. As the months wore on and the polls did not shift, there could be no reasonable doubt that the Howard administration would be resoundingly defeated at the elections. But Costello’s case for change failed. Prepared to wound, but unwilling to strike, Costello destabilised the Howard government and undermined John Howard’s legitimacy but was unable to persuade his colleagues to install him in the leadership. At the time, this failure was attributed solely to Costello’s personal unpopularity with the Australian public. Yet Costello and his backers also seriously misjudged the wider political environment. They assumed that the Australian people believed that the Coalition government’s policies, priorities and entire political project were worth supporting at the 2007 election and that the only thing that stood in the way of the government’s re-election was John Howard. This was not so. In 2007, the Australian people were intent on repudiating not just the Prime Minister but also the government itself. As deputy architect of the government’s political project, Costello represented continuity, not change. A change in leadership without a change in the policy settings of the government was tantamount to no change at all. This insoluble conundrum petrified and paralysed the Coalition government throughout 2007.

In early 2007, Brett was far more sanguine and realistic in her assessment of the situation than Costello. As a long-time observer of the Liberal Party, she was perforce a student of John Howard’s character and personality. John Howard had been at the heart of Liberal Party politics for four decades, including eleven years as the party’s leader and prime minister. Far more than has ever been possible for any leader of the Labor Party, John Howard had come to dominate, control and shape his party. A year ago, she divined that the Liberal Party would be incapable of shifting Howard if he did not want to go. She foresaw that the Mexican stand-off between Howard and Costello would continue indefinitely and could not be broken save by Howard’s resignation.

Unlike Brett, Costello clearly failed to grasp just how completely Howard had shaped the Liberal Party in his own image and to suit his own purposes. 

For better, and, as it turned out, for worse, the Liberal Party saw its fate as inseparable from that of its leader. Costello gave them fair warning, and a plausible alternative, but his colleagues opted for martyrdom nevertheless. They knew what he did not. That he was serving in the Howard government, not the Howard–Costello government or even the Howard Liberal government. The powers that be within the Liberal Party had somehow persuaded themselves that without John Howard, the government he led had no meaning, purpose or hope of a separate, continuing existence. 

In her essay, Brett outlines how effectively John Howard deconstructed the old Liberal Party he inherited in 1996. Over the Howard years, the Liberal Party degenerated from a political party into a movement supporting a quasi-presidential leader. The parliamentary Liberal Party became even more of a cheer chamber and less of a check on executive excess than in previous Liberal administrations. As she vividly recounts, by 2007 the Liberal Party had become little more than a sort of low-rent Australian Peronist movement, subservient and responsive only to the whims, enthusiasms and prejudices of its leader. The zenith, or the nadir, of this metamorphosis was the high farce of the attempted leadership putsch at the time of the Sydney APEC meeting. How revealing that, unlike all other prime ministerial or party leadership spills, this one was played out not in and around the parliament in Canberra but in a city literally in a state of South American-style siege. All that was missing were the tanks. The parliamentary members of the Liberal Party were neither involved nor informed as the Cabinet convened in several secret sessions to plot the overthrow of its leader. As we now know, their pathetic entreaties to Howard to depart were finally turned down contemptuously not just by him, but, in a moment worthy of Evita, by Mrs Howard as well. How simply astounding that grown men and women, the heirs and successors to the vibrantly diverse party bequeathed to them by Menzies, Holt, Gorton and Fraser, should have so meekly acquiesced in their own political destruction.

John Howard’s staring down of his putative political assassins was, of course, a testament to the strength of his own self-belief as well as to the utter weakness and lack of resolve of his opponents.

But this clash of personalities and egos masked something perhaps rather more troubling and disturbing in the evolution of one of the two great and enduring parties of Australian democracy.

Had the Liberal Party sustained its once deep and wide roots in Australian society, over the course of the Howard years two broad factions would have emerged in the parliamentary Liberal Party. These currents of opinion would have reflected both the extreme right neo-conservatism pursued by Howard and his allies since 1996, and a more traditional liberalism more drawn from the broad centre of Australian society. 

After a decade of neo-conservative ascendancy, it was clear that by 2007 the tide had swung back to the centre and left and away from the right. On a succession of issues – the Hicks and Haneef cases, the support of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the contemptuous dismissal of the reality of global warming, the decline of the public health and education systems and the introduction of WorkChoices – John Howard had moved very far away from the centre of the Australian political spectrum.

In the nature of things, over time a functional and healthy political party would have brought forth a political and personal alternative to Howard’s neo-conservatism.

Yet this did not happen.

Howard cannot remotely be blamed for hanging on to the leadership for as long as he could. But something is deeply wrong with a party that could not axe a leader whose time was up and whose policies were generally no longer supported by the Australian public. That no such political alternative emerged demonstrates how completely Howard and his allies had purged their ideological foes. 

The Liberal implosion of 2007 therefore had its more distant origins in the destruction in the early 1990s of the old Liberal Party at the hands of Howard, Costello, Kroger and their party and business supporters.

Howard and Costello were both highly conservative neo-liberal warriors who shared a deep hostility to old-fashioned liberalism. In 2007, Peter Costello could not toss John Howard because the public knew that there was no serious political, as distinct from personal, difference between them. And the largely powerless residual structures of the old Liberal Party could not toss either of them because Howard and Costello had purged the parliamentary Liberal Party of liberals, leaving only those who supported the neo-conservative line relentlessly pursued by the Howard government since 1996.

It was policies not personalities that brought down the Howard government. And, more to the point, it was Howard’s embrace of American neo-conservatism, and the public’s rejection of it, that culminated in the political massacre of November 2007.

In the early 1990s, Howard and his allies transplanted this foul exotic bloom from the American hothouses of neo-conservatism, run by and for the most extreme elements of the United States Republican Party, to the ideological desert that was the Australian Liberal Party after a decade in opposition.

Over most of his pre-prime ministerial career, John Howard was an incipient neo-conservative and had been so even before the term was invented. But as the neo-con revolution gathered strength and pace in the United States, so did John Howard’s commitment strengthen to the revolutionary causes of unrestricted free markets, low income taxation, high indirect taxation, general privatisation of public assets and the restoration of social orthodoxy that the neo-conservatives believed had been overthrown in the libidinous 1960s. 

When he fought the 1996 election, Howard was, of course, too canny and elliptical to proclaim publicly his fealty to the neo-conservative cause. In 1996, he was elected on the ultimate “me too” platform. He gave no hint that he intended to impose a neo-conservative agenda on an unsuspecting Australian electorate, reassured by his apparent devotion to “relaxed and comfortable” business as usual. In office, however, he moved swiftly and decisively to the far right, and never again came back to the centre ground of Australian politics. From the time of his election onwards, there can be no doubting that his purpose was to bring about the political, social and economic transformation of Australia along neo-conservative lines.

But, predictably enough, American neo-conservatism never found a congenial home under Australian skies or took root in Australian society.

Australia is not America. 

Try as Howard did, Australian society was not easily going to be transformed into a free-market, deregulated, low-taxing, devil-take-the hindmost facsimile of Texas.

As early as the 1998 election, it was obvious that the Australian people rejected Howard’s neo-conservative vision for Australia. At that election, a majority of the Australian people voted him out of office, but he clung on to power thanks to the Australian electoral system’s inability to translate a majority of votes into a majority of seats.

Howard recklessly interpreted his 1998 near-death experience as a reason to press forward to his ultimate goal. As Brett notes, Howard grew more determined to govern from the extreme right, using the tried and tested techniques of fostering division, discord and fear. Like his patron, George W. Bush, John Howard was a master of wedge politics. Instructed and inspired by his Republican mentors, Howard and his acolytes ceaselessly laboured to inflame public opinion against convenient scapegoats – Muslims, Aboriginals, homosexuals and single mothers – while pretending to speak for “mainstream” values. 

But his public support wavered, then deeply eroded, as he implemented the core elements of the neo-con policy handbook – massive income-tax cuts, the introduction of the GST, cripplingly high fees for tertiary education, ill-thought-out privatisation of public assets and redistribution of spending from the poor to the rich. After his nominal election loss in 1998, Howard prevailed in two more elections but both times in exceptional circumstances. In 2001, the September 11 attacks on the United States produced a surge in support for neo-conservative militarism that, in Australia, evaporated as soon as Howard supported the disastrous American invasion of Iraq. In 2004, Labor scored an own goal by presenting an alternative leader whose incapacities became obvious only when it was too late to replace him.

These two fluked victories were trumpeted by Howard’s media and business supporters as ringing endorsements of the neo-conservative policies of the Howard government. They were nothing of the sort. 

Yet none of this weighed on Howard, or slowed the pace at which he pursued his increasingly radical policy agenda. The apotheosis of Australian neo-conservatism came with the profound ideological assault on the working conditions of low- and middle-income families known as WorkChoices. WorkChoices irreparably broke the already frayed link of consent between the Howard government and those it governed. WorkChoices sealed the fate of the Howard Liberal government. It was the last straw in the pile of hay bales that Howard had loaded on to the backs of the Australian people since 1996. From that point on, the government’s, and not just John Howard’s, demise was as certain as anything in politics can be.

While the fall of the Howard government occurred in 2007, the long strange death of Liberalism therefore began with the purging of centrists and liberals from its ranks in the 1990s. The mid-1990s triumph of economically and socially extreme elements in many Liberal branches played a major role in the consequent collapse of the Liberals at every level of municipal, territorial and state government and, eventually, at the federal level as well.

The ruination of the Liberals took place in full public view over more than a decade. No national existential crisis caused the demise of traditional Liberalism or the collapse of the Howard government. Indeed, it perished during a time of unprecedented prosperity and confidence. The portents, warning signs and klaxons never ceased flashing and sounding, yet the Howard neo-conservative caravan pressed cheerfully on from disaster to disaster and then into oblivion. It passed into history unmourned, unloved and unlamented.

Australian Liberalism collapsed because it turned its back on its own history and spurned its deep political roots in Australian culture and society. With eyes wide open, the Liberal Party rejected its traditional pragmatic centrism to embrace the most extreme variants of a romantic, utopian ideology imported by Howard and his followers as a total design for living from a far distant, rather alien, society.

In 1996, Howard hocked the future of the Coalition government to an extreme political philosophy that was then already discredited but that by 2007 was all but defunct in America itself. He gambled that Australians could be persuaded away from being a northern European-style social democracy to becoming something more like the southern United States.

In November 2007, he lost the bet and with it his government.

The clearest lesson of the 2007 debacle is that there is no future in Australian politics for a socially and economically hard-line neo-conservative party or at least not one that aspires to form national government.

Whether, how, and indeed why the remnants of Australian Liberalism might rise from the disaster of the Howard years remains an open question and one which I hope that Judith Brett might soon address.


Bill Bowtell was senior political adviser to the prime minister between 1994 and 1996. As senior adviser to the federal health minister, he played a significant role in the introduction of the Medicare health insurance system and was an architect of Australia’s successful and well-regarded response to HIV/AIDS.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 28, Exit Right. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 29, Love and Money.


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