QUARTERLY ESSAY 3 The Opportunist



Paul Bongiorno

I am sure that John Howard would not baulk at Guy Rundle’s description of him as “The Opportunist”. Opportunism and pragmatism are features of John Howard’s public life as is an intense self-belief in his destiny to be prime minister. I remember travelling with him to Israel in 1989 when he was opposition leader. While there, the news came from Australia that Fred Chaney had expressed interest in leading the Liberals, “if John Howard fell under a bus”. This merely gave voice to rumblings within the party that Howard wasn’t really taking them anywhere. In conversation, Mr Howard refused to countenance the idea that anyone then in the party, Peacock or Chaney included, was better able to lead the party than he. It’s a tribute to his tenacity and persistence that he hung on through the Peacock coup, and then the Hewson and Downer leaderships, to be finally given his next big chance.

Howard’s self-belief goes to his sense that the values he espouses, traditional Anglo-Protestant virtues that built an empire and founded this nation, are absolutes that still underpin Australia’s identity and success. Rundle nicely captures this in his essay but I believe that in exploring Howard’s opportunism we need to also look at its moral underpinnings. And here we get a clue from his deathbed visit to B.A. Santamaria. The fundamentalist, Catholic, anti-Communist was much admired by the Prime Minister, and the two share a doctrine that neither would necessarily admit to but to which their actions bear ample testimony, namely, that the ends justify the means. Santamaria once remarked that you do not use Marquis of Queensberry rules in the fight against atheistic Communists. Howard would say the same of fighting opponents whose motto is “whatever it takes”. So whatever it takes to stay in power is exonerated by the exercise of that power to protect a world order that is True and Good or at least closer to what is True and Good than any alternatives.

At the height of the Tampa crisis, the Reverend Tim Costello wrote a highly critical piece in the Sydney Morning Herald concerning the immorality of using human beings as a means to an end. He tore apart, philosophically and theologically, the Howard argument that we have to treat the asylum seekers in this way as a deterrent to others. The reverend gentleman went on to argue from Matthew’s gospel the Christian belief that, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers you do to me,” and further that, “I was naked and you clothed me, hungry and you fed me, homeless and you took me in.” I raise this because I detected in the Rundle essay an implied innocence-by-association linking Howard’s heir apparent with his professionally Christian brother. The Rundle conclusion seemed to be that things can only get better under Peter Costello. We can all live in this hope but the Treasurer, like the Prime Minister, is more likely to believe that politics is the art of the possible and that, as Gough Whitlam once remarked, only the impotent are pure.

There is no doubt that Howard is one of the finest practitioners of the art of politics we’ve seen. It is refreshing to see someone of Rundle’s perspicacity acknowledging this while at the same time lamenting that these skills are employed with a ruthlessness that in the end helps to destroy the very values they paradoxically believe they serve.


Paul Bongiorno is Network Ten’s Parliament House bureau chief in Canberra. He has been the presenter of Network Ten’s national political program Meet the Press since 1996.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 3, The Opportunist. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 4, Rabbit Syndrome.


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