Norman Abjorensen

In between Judith Brett’s insightful Relaxed and Comfortable and her incisive Exit Right we have the eerily fascinating Errington and van Onselen biography of John Howard – but still we see through a glass darkly. 

I call the biography “eerily fascinating” because it is essentially about a man who does not exist; there is only a politician, albeit a driven, determined and ruthless one, who connives and plots and intrigues instead of living. We peer in vain into that space behind the politician and instead of a man we find an endless repetition of the looking-glass kings in Macbeth – but they are all John Howard, politician.

There is something of Dame Edna superstar here – the suburban man writ large; but to my mind there are three extraordinary things about Mr Ordinary (if that is not a contradiction).

The most extraordinary thing about Howard is not that he managed to lose the 2007 election entirely off his own bat, or even that he won four elections on the trot. No, the extraordinary thing is that he even became prime minister in the first place.

The second most extraordinary thing is that he represented himself with some success as a “man of the people,” insisting that it was he alone who had a direct line to the heartland of middle Australia, that he was “in touch” with the average Australian in a way that no one else was. It was, and remains, a chilling conceit; quite the nearest thing we have had in Australia to that primitive Germanic concept of the General Will. 

The third thing is that Howard managed for a decade to entice half of the Australian voting public (except in 1998) to enter into a private fantasy world that he had built over decades of resentment and then projected onto the Australian electorate as an authentic construction of national life. 

Let us take these points one at a time. How did Howard become prime minister? As in real life, Howard PM had two parents: the father was Paul Keating, the progenitor of the worthy Big Picture, but a leader quite lacking in either the political or the communication skills to take the electorate with him; instead of transmitting enthusiasm, Keating sowed resentment in all those who felt they were not part of his scenario. This resentment created the political space for Howard. (It was not the only wayward offspring generated by Keating; Pauline Hanson and One Nation share a common paternity). The mother of Howard PM was a shamelessly promiscuous Liberal Party, seducing and abandoning lovers who could not deliver the coveted riches of power. Peacock had failed twice, Howard had been cut out by a wayward National Party premier, Hewson had been promised two terms but had been unceremoniously ejected after one, and an absurd dalliance with callow youth saw the surreal leadership of Alexander Downer. Howard, ambitious as ever, was still standing and allowed himself to be drafted. He was what Bill Hayden memorably called the “drover’s dog” – someone who could have been anyone handed an election there for the taking, as was Bob Hawke after Hayden resigned on the eve of the 1983 election.

How “of the people” was Howard? He had, by any standards, led a sheltered life, socially and intellectually. From working in the family service station to his entry into the legal world, Howard never experienced the brutal authoritarian vicissitudes of the workplace that are everyday life for most Australians. He had, by all accounts, never been harassed, bullied, humiliated or sacked by a boss or manager, never resented the arbitrary power that bosses use against workers. Did he ever take a “sickie”? That he was so out of touch with workaday Australians was confirmed by his quip when explaining the rationale behind his abolition of unfair-dismissal laws – that every workplace had a “pain in the neck,” and why should they be protected? How strange that this passed with so little comment: many Australians would have thought the “pain in the neck” was the boss.

The world according to Howard was, as Brett points out so rightly, constructed on the “primal opposition” between Liberal and Labor; it was a Manichean view of all of social life, not just politics, that so pervasively inflected Howard’s thought and deed. It was whatever gang he could muster against Labor (and he managed, it has to be conceded, some fair numbers in 1996, 2001 and 2004).

Labor, of course, was weak for much of the Howard ascendancy, just as Labor had been weak as well as divided for much of the age of Robert Menzies from 1949 to 1966, and this was a potent factor in Howard’s success, just as it was for Menzies’. Labor’s weakness was, in part, self-inflicted, partly through indifferent leadership but more so from a misplaced loyalty that prevented the party from repudiating Keating; this cost Labor dearly. Howard’s deft use of the political “wedge” in prising away a slice of working-class support from Labor worked as he systematically derided the “new class,” the “elites” and the dreaded “political correctness” as being linked to the ALP brand. 

The incursion Howard made into Labor’s heartland was derived from his own political life experience as much as it was from political necessity: Labor’s cultural networks, of which the unions were a key part, had to be demonised, neutralised and eliminated. He succeeded in the first, for a time in the second, but the third remains unachieved.

Consider Howard’s world. He was born in 1939 in Sydney, just as the ramshackle and squabbling coalition that had come into office in New South Wales after Lang’s dismissal in 1932 and the subsequent implosion in the ALP was itself unravelling. The new social coalition put together by the still under-rated Bill McKell in 1941 saw Labor sweep into office and hold on to power for a record twenty-four years.

What this quarter of a century of ALP rule did in an admittedly Labor state was to extend and consolidate not just electoral power but political power in the widest sense – in the unions, in local government, in the churches, in the universities and even in some business sectors. It was patronage at its most powerful, and it was entrenched and hard to dislodge, as even eleven years of Liberal government from 1965 to 1976 left little mark on it.

It was James Jupp who many years ago identified the “out-group” mentality of the Liberal Party in New South Wales and its right-wing “ratbag” proclivity, and it sprang from the same well as Howard: everywhere the Liberals looked in New South Wales, they saw Labor; it was permanent siege mentality. It was not so much a political fight, as the more self-confident Deakinite Victorians tended to see it, but a cultural one as well as an existential one.

It was this, along with the narrow, small-business shopkeeper mentality that shaped Howard’s world, and he retailed this to the rest of Australia. A telling passage in the Errington and van Onselen biography reveals Howard’s resentment at his father’s plight in being involved in a planning dispute over the siting of petrol pumps. To Howard, this was merely petty officialdom, inspired of course by the Labor ethos that had no respect for small business. It never crossed his mind that there might have been a greater public good involved, and this thinking coloured his whole political career, especially his prime ministership. Howard’s curiously close and uncritical relationship with capitalism – quite unlike that of the sceptic Menzies – cries out for further exploration.

Howard, clearly, has left the Liberal Party in a parlous state (and Menzies would not be pleased). Not only has he left it leaderless at the national level, Brendan Nelson notwithstanding, he has played a key role in the party’s political demise in the states. First, he has bled the states of resources and whatever talent there was; second, he has insisted on unquestioning acolytes running the state divisions; and finally his neo-liberal policy prescriptions have proved to be electoral poison at the state level where government equates with service delivery. Howard has always insisted he is a creature of the Liberal Party, but under his watch in his home state it has been taken over by unelectable extremists. The 2007 state election in New South Wales was certainly the nadir of the party, as it failed to land a glove on an inept, incompetent, untalented and possibly corrupt ALP administration.

Even Howard, the consummate political animal, failed to sniff the political wind; the man whose political instincts and sheer determination had carried him to the top succumbed to hubris, misreading signs all around him. Concern over climate change had taken hold in the electorate and he realised this – unconvincingly – far too late. Similarly, he failed to notice the groundswell of concern over David Hicks – again until too late. 

He also believed he had seen Beazley off; the public had simply stopped listening to him. Did it never occur to Howard that he was about to suffer the same fate? Indeed, it may well be that by the time Rudd was elected leader at the end of 2006, Howard was already becoming inaudible; Rudd’s ascension simply turned the volume switch off.

In pondering Howard’s legacy, Brett concedes that while the Liberal Party is damaged and the nation is singularly unprepared for readjustment in the face of climate change, Howard at least “has left Australia with a booming economy, and most Australians are more prosperous than they have ever been.” But is this really the case? The Australian Financial Review reported on 24 January that 60 per cent of our GDP comes from consumer spending, and any slackening would impact immediately on economic growth. Think about that for a moment: in an age of absurdly easy credit (à la sub-prime) we are afloat on a sea of four-wheel drives, holiday houses, boats and plasma televisions, all financed with borrowed funds at historically (but temporarily) low interest rates. Much of the prosperity is illusory, and the illusion can be easily shattered, which poses the question about the nature of a legacy that preaches public fiscal rectitude (except during election campaigns) while not just encouraging but demanding rampant profligacy by consumers wallowing in a morass of debt, owning little but owing much. Any way you look at it the whole process is unsustainable. 

Finally, Brett and others are too inclined toward generosity in their musing over Howard’s reluctance to hand over to Costello. The humble, loyal and selfless (but also, as Brett notes, defiant) servant of the party – “there only so long as the party wants me” – was played over and over in the media, said with a straight face with the earnest hangdog Honest John matter-of-fact expression, and taken at face value; whereas it was a taunt, as boastful as it was cynical.

The surreal side of this was Howard as the increasingly erratic King Lear; the Realpolitik of it was Howard as the Liberal Party’s bolshevik Lenin: he had the numbers, menshevik Costello did not. 

Howard never let up being a politician, not for a moment; this was his undoing. His own limited life experience precluded him from ever seeing WorkChoices as many Australians did; it was not his Australia. Rather than try to understand this, he simply dismissed it from his consciousness as a mere figment of a Labor–union campaign.

Howard never really knew us at all – only the parts he wanted to know.


Norman Abjorensen lectures in politics at the Australian National University. His latest book is Leadership and the Liberal Revival: Bolte, Askin and the Post-war Ascendancy.


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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