Exploring key political figures in other countries can be a very exciting endeavour, especially for those who have a thirst for knowledge and willingness to examine unique political systems. While I have inundated myself with American presidents over the past number of years, I thought I would look to a fellow Commonwealth country and seek to better understand the life of John Howard, Australia’s prime minister from 1996-2007. In this comprehensive political and personal memoir, Howard explores his life and the great impact it played in his personal growth, as well as the important events that shaped Australia at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st. Howard divides his memoirs into three distinct periods, which serve well to differentiate time frames for review. To better understand John Howard, it serves to understand his initial introduction into politics, time on the opposition benches, and period as prime minister. While I will not try to be thorough in my examination, my skimming along the surface seeks to whet the appetite of the review reader to see some of the key highlights that leapt off the page. I seek, also, not to delve too deeply into the Australian political divide, which I realise can be quite significant. I had an Australian friend comment to me that I would surely not find much interest in Howard (in comparison to a single-term US president whose biography I read and reviewed recently), though I can honestly say this book has significantly contradicted that sentiment. The curious and dedicated reader who has an interest in parliamentary politics and foreign relations will certainly find something in the substantial memoir that Howards offers.
In his cordial style, John Howard dives right in during the opening chapters of his book to show how politics influenced him from an early age. Growing up against the backdrop of the Second World War, Howard witnessed the importance of Australian government policy from an early age, with food and petrol rationing to keep the country afloat. He discusses the deep-rooted Labor Party affinity his family held, based on the working class nature of his parents and grandparents. While Howard was not actively involved in the political process, he cites remembering going to the polls at a young age, as though the importance of democracy was firmly rooted into his psyche. It was when he left to study law at university that Howard became interested in politics, turning to the Liberal Party to meet his needs. Finding himself centre-right in his leanings, Howard found solace in the party and its policies, headed by Sir Robert Menzies, a popular and long-serving prime minister of the time. Working hard to keep the Liberals in power, Howard tested the water a few times, both federally and at the state-level, but failed to win a seat in either parliament. His dedication and determination to stick to his beliefs led him to finally win a seat under the Liberal leadership of Malcolm Fraser, another well-known prime minister. While serving with Fraser, Howard was promoted quickly, perhaps due to his attention to detail, and was soon given the portfolio of Minister for the Treasury, which, in Australia, provided him the opportunity to delivery the annual budget to Parliament. Howard discusses some of the important decisions that he was able to make during this time, shaping fiscal policy under Fraser and honing his skills as a potential leader in the future. Howard began to make a name for himself in Australia and the Oceania-Asian region during this time, while also clashing with some of the strong trade-unions and Labor Party Members of Parliament (MPs), who sought to contradict his pronouncements at every turn. While riding the high of serving in government, Howard could sense that Fraser’s wave might soon crash, turning a strong Australian Government on its head, left to the decisions of the electorate. That day came in 1983 when the Liberals were unceremoniously turfed from office after a double dissolution (Governor-General dissolved both houses and sent them to elections), leaving a Labor Party ready to negate much of Howard’s (read: Fraser) policies over the last number of years.
Howard’s time serving on the opposition benches proved quite effective for his future as Australian prime minister. Those familiar with the parliamentary system will know that there is always a ‘government-in-waiting’ or shadow cabinet, seeking to leap on any moment that the governing collective might gaffe significantly. Howard was forced to endure significant time as an opposition member, but did not do so idly. His past as Treasury Minister left him as the front-line critic of Labor fiscal policy, which sought to undo much of what he had done while at the helm. Howard did his best, while basing his criticisms in fact rather than ideological rhetoric, though it is impossible to divorce the two completely. Another aspect of time in opposition that Howard highlights relates to an Australian parliamentary adage, ‘there is much dry grass around a party leader’. In essence, a party leader is in the precarious position that anyone who opposes them significantly could toss the proverbial match and cause many issues. Howard saw the Liberals in this position on numerous occasions, as leadership questions arose and factions sought to remove Fraser. Howard tried to hold his ground and, while serving as deputy leader, saw the parliamentary party choose new directions repeatedly throughout the Liberal time in opposition (including Howard serving as leader twice). Without getting too academic here, Australia follows the British parliamentary system, whereby elected officials (in both the House of Representatives and Senate) are responsible for choosing their leader, rather than the party faithful. So, any disharmony could lead to a leader’s ouster at the drop of a hat. Howard weathered the storm here and discusses the repeated strains on his position as MP and shadow cabinet member, what with the numerous backstabbing efforts of the two factions within the Liberals. While not all that exciting for some readers, I found it quite interesting to see the struggles that rose behind closed doors and were reported in the media. When Howard ascended to the leadership role for the second time, Labor was on precarious ground, having turned to ideologically running the country, rather than putting the Australian people first. The election of March 1996 would prove highly interesting, with John Howard taking the Liberal troops into the battle of their lives.
The election of the Coalition (Liberal and National parties) again in March 1996 proved to be a turning point, not only because John Howard was at the helm, but because it ushered in a new era of Australian politics, one in which the newly-elected prime minister sought to shape the country in his own way. As Howard mentions in the introduction, this segment of the memoir fills 2/3 of the entire narrative, speaking to the detail and complexities of some topics discussed herein. Howard had served on the Government benches before, so this was not a complete culture shock, but leading a party (and country) proved to be much different than acting as a Minister. Howard recounts gaining his legs in a Parliament that remained someone in transition, having been led by Labor for a number of years. New policies and approaches had to be vetting through the parliamentary system and new faces meant trying to massage what was already a complicated parliamentary party into a workable and cohesive unit. The aforementioned ‘dry grass’ approach remained on Howard’s radar, though he did not make mention of worrying about it too often (save some jitters late in his parliamentary career). While Howard did serve through a number of elections, he chose not to take large segments of the narrative to describe the campaign trail, unlike what might be found in many of the presidential biographies and memoirs I have tackled in years past. Instead, Howard’s focus was to explore many of the key issues that arose during his time in power. Howard devotes much time to the debate over a GST (Goods and Services Tax), seeking to increase monies that could be used by the federal government and its state counterparts. The divisive nature of this tax seemed to fuel the debate for a 1998 election, where the electorate chose to keep Howard in power, thereby offering their blessing for such a significant tax. Additional issues of indigenous peoples treatment and the brewing debate over turning Australia into a republic received much discussion, the latter going to a referendum in 1999. Howard shows his colours as a strong monarchist and lays the groundwork not only for his party’s beliefs, but his own, which enriches the narrative and provides the reader with a better understanding of the debate. Seeking to help East Timor declare independence from Indonesia proved to be one of Howard’s first international dilemmas, but it would show his desire to put democracy and the stability of the region ahead of anything else. Howard also recounts his long-standing relationship with George W. Bush, with whom he first forged a relationship while he was in the United States during the attacks of September 11, 2001. Throughout the narrative, Howard returns to the importance of this America-Australia relationship, which served to balance the international political unrest at a time of much confusion. Likeminded centre-right leaders, Bush and Howard kept a close relationship throughout the former’s time in office, still speaking after they both left office. Howard uses his omnipotent view of the world political scene and experience leading Australia to offer some insights (and critiques) of leaders in both Australia and America, based on the actions he and Bush took to shape events. There is no shortage of issues that are addressed by Howard, including: the Bali attacks, immigration policy, Kyoto protocols, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and regional political cohesion. While those outside the Australian reaches might not fully comprehend the importance of these and many other topics, Howard offers interesting perspectives through the lens of his leadership efforts. By the time he left office, after Kevin Rudd and Labor swept back into power in 2007, Howard was ready to accept the decision of the electorate, though refused to disappear into the political wilderness. As a man still active in political and international statesman circles, Howard makes clear that he will always present his opinions, though not interfere with the elected officials running Australia in the 21st century.
While some were sure that I would find less interest in John Howard’s story than many of the American political biographies I have enjoyed, I feel strongly that this was an erroneous presumption. Howard lays out his story in such a way that the reader can easily comprehend what he is saying, without diluting the message. Not overly academic in nature, the reader should be aware that this is more than an Australian political primer. It addresses key areas of politics, parliament, and international relations as seen through the eyes of Howard throughout his political career. A general knowledge of the political system helps and a keen interest in learning is also an essential reader trait, but Howard discusses things in such a way that there is no need to have intimate knowledge of Australian history, both political and social. Howard’s approach is one that does not shy away from educating the reader, while also not pulling punches when it comes to those with whom he does not agree. Howard makes his political leanings known, which may trump some from caring at all. Liberal and Labor politics are surely as divisive as some of the political differences in my native Canada, but Howard is able to rise above, on occasion, and speak for Australia. That is not to say that he does not offer many potshots at the disarray that became the Labor Party in Government. His respect for the electoral process, democracy, and the right to alternate opinions shines through in the delivery of this information-rich narrative. Howard served long enough to have a strong opinion of world events and was in power during some of the most important world events in the last fifty years. The second longest-serving prime minister, Australians may not all have liked John Howard or his politics, but they should be proud to have had such a competent leader who sought to shape Australia’s place on the world stage. I know I learned a great deal and have developed a great deal of curiosity about a fellow Commonwealth and parliamentary-led country.
Kudos, Mr. Howard, for permitting me such an in-depth look into your life, particularly the political aspects. I am better for having this knowledge and you offer it up in such a way as to have whetted my appetite for more.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons