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No Bones About It, He Has A Great Average

Alan Ramsey
1,749 words
1 December 2001
Sydney Morning Herald
Copyright of John Fairfax Group Pty Ltd

LES Carlyon is one of the two most elegant writers in Australian journalism (the other is David Marr). Carlyon used to be editor of The Age in Melbourne when the Syme family still owned it, and afterwards he wrote about racehorses and other things from time to time with a power and rhythm of language you rarely find in our newspapers. Now Carlyon writes for The Bulletin and earlier this year, for my money, he wrote the book of the year. His Gallipoli is just the most stunning account of the Anzac boneyard.

And now, earlier this week, he has written the political essay of the year about the politician of the year that will surely enrage ``the chattering classes'' of this and every other year.

Regrettably, Carlyon didn't write his essay for the Herald but I can legitimately pinch enough of a taste to let you know what you're missing. The core subject, of course, is John Howard. It would have to be, wouldn't it? As Carlyon writes: ``John Howard isn't Harry Truman and Paul Keating during his time as prime minister certainly wasn't Franklin Roosevelt. The trouble is the representatives of our chattering classes are in love with this metaphor (or the first half of it, anyway) and won't give it up.

``Howard, they say, is an interloper and Keating had greatness in him. Howard sees postcards and Keating painted great frescoes in our minds. Howard is mean-spirited and Keating was all about kindness and goodness. Howard is suburban and Keating had a large mind. The song has been playing on the op-ed pages of our broadsheets for years now, and with Howard's third election win it has become shrill. It may be time to give it up on the grounds it is irrelevant to the world we live in.

``The more Howard is mocked the better he does in the polls; the more he is said to be out of touch the more he seems to be in touch with the voters, anyway. And the song may also be intellectually shoddy which is amusing, because several of Howard's severest critics on those op-ed pages like to call themselves `public intellectuals' or members of the `intelligentsia'...''

Carlyon didn't just craft a 700-word bolt of lightning. There are all of 2500 words, most of them rapiers. Keating will hate every one. So will a good many others. There has not been, in my view, a more devastating confrontation of the automatic anti-Howard lobby, nor a more exquisite exposition of its self-satisfied contempt.

To be critical of Howard's leadership and policies is one thing. To be forever blindly rabid is another. Carlyon makes the case like nobody before him.

Not all of Howard's Labor opponents over the years have shared this automatic contempt. During the recent election campaign, a Labor figure recounted a story of running into Howard in the street one day during those years in the early 1990s when Howard was in the opposition wilderness of having been ousted from the Liberal leadership by Andrew Peacock and then passed over for John Hewson.

The storyteller at the time was with Tom Uren, the old Labor warhorse by then retired to pasture, and when he went to cross the road, rather than pass by Howard, Uren restrained him by the arm and, as Howard drew abreast, stopped to chat after introducing his young colleague.

Later, when the colleague asked why Uren had bothered talking to ``that conservative s---'', Uren told him: ``Don't ever underestimate John Howard. Too many make the mistake.''

Howard was a clever politician of ability and substance, Uren said, and his friend should not forget it. He never did. It was a lesson Paul Keating never learnt. Neither did others, to their cost.

And because they didn't, Howard has now led his party to its third election victory on the trot and thus the holy grail of his third term as Prime Minister. Which means, of course, that by the time Howard turns 64 on July 26 the year after next, which is when he says he will ``consider'' his future, he will have overtaken all his prime ministerial predecessors except two: the unreachable Menzies (18 years, five months) and Labor's Bob Hawke (eight years, nine months).

Already such Labor icons as Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam and Keating are far behind, and by July 26, 2003, Howard will have passed Hughes and Lyons, both Labor rats and each prime minister for seven years, three months; and (just barely) Malcolm Fraser, too (seven years, four months).

Howard's prime ministership by the time of his 64th birthday will be seven years, four months and 23 days exactly. There is nothing ordinary about either his durability or his resolve.

Absurdly, none of us should ever have been surprised Howard has come so far. Back in June 1987, when he was facing his first election as opposition leader (and his only defeat), Craig McGregor laid it all out in a quite remarkable piece in the Herald headlined ``What John Howard wants''. It said everything you needed to know about his beliefs, his policies, his obsessions, his stoicism. You only had to keep it to hand to read Howard like a book for the next 14 years. I rediscovered it only a year ago. And he was as disliked (or feared) then by the ``chattering classes'' as he remains 14 years later.

I mean, consider this from McGregor's 4000-word article three weeks before polling day. ```I'm an issues man,' explains Howard. `He's like a very smart 12-year-old,' says an acerbic cartoonist. `He hasn't got enough imagination to understand the trajectory of anyone but himself,' says a social worker from the western suburbs. `God help us if he gets in.'''

Sound familiar?

And what about this?

``What sort of prime minister would John Howard be? He would be an activist: if Howard had his way he will radically change the face of government in Australia and push the political ground so far to the Right that it would take years, maybe a decade, to bring it back.''

Fourteen years later, and 51/2 years into his prime ministership, and Howard has done pretty much exactly what McGregor said he would do.

I mean, as Howard explained very deliberately at the time: ``A Liberal government will abolish the capital gains tax, the assets test, the fringe benefits tax ... reduce corporate tax rate from 49 per cent to 38 per cent ... work harder ... big reductions in government spending ... must wait six months to receive unemployment benefits ... abolish Medicare ... asset sales and privatisation ... decisive change in the economic direction of Australia.''

Half the capital gains tax has gone (thanks to Beazley Labor's acquiescence), but not the assets test, the fringe benefits tax or Medicare (not yet, anyhow).

But everything else proposed in 1987 was right in line with Howard Government policy in 1996, along with: ``We'll make immediate changes to industrial relations. The health-care system, the new higher education and school system, we're ready to go on all those ... New tax rates, more incentive, abolition of various bodies, assets sales ... a new cabinet office of people from the private sector, plus public servants, a group of people around me who give good advice [and responsible to Howard personally].''

He was every bit as good as his word. The broad game plan for how Howard would behave and his government would behave was always there, for a whole nine years, before ever Howard got the chance, finally, after four changes of Liberal leader (back to Peacock, to Hewson, to Downer, back to Howard again) and 13 years of Labor government, to put it all into practice. Everything, that is, except the GST.

That crept into the ``never, ever'' later, but not out loud in 1987. Yet it was always in Howard's grand plan after Fraser's cabinet first rejected in 1981. And who was it, after the 1980 election, who put to Fraser the idea of a broad-based consumption tax ?

Of course John Howard, Fraser's treasurer at the time. The proposal would remain stillborn for another 17 years. And then, finally, after the 1998 election squeaker, sold on the back of promised big income tax cuts and a massive advertising campaign costing tens of millions paid for taxpayers themselves, Howard got his GST. At last.

Seventeen years, but Howard persisted. That's his political trademark: he never gives up. And remarkably, one way or another, throughout his entire career, he has always prevailed.

This very ordinary man who has put together an extraordinary political career. ``Average Australian'', Howard described his proposed government in 1987. ``Because that's what I am,'' he told McGregor with no hint of self-mockery. ``I think I have more empathy with people who live in the suburbs of Australia than any political leader in the last 20 years.''

A lot of us scoffed at the time, including me. Fourteen years later and Les Carlyon's ``chattering classes'' are still scoffing. They continue to deride Howard for what they think he is, not for what he's achieved in an unforgiving business. People like Keating all but vomit at the thought Howard goes on winning when intelligent, amiable windbags like Kim Beazley fall by the wayside.

Keating will never forgive Howard, not for what he's doing to Australia, whatever that might be, but because he thrashed him. Not just defeated him thrashed him. That is what truly sticks in the craw.

In June 1987, McGregor wrote of Howard in those final weeks of a losing campaign: ``Under immense and self-imposed pressure he's kept his control, his sense of humour and most of his integrity. He has also kept most of that deepest, ineradicable, Hard Right puritanism which he has never had the will, or the imagination, to shrug off and which maims him intellectually.''

Fourteen years on, an ``intellectually maimed'' John Howard goes on seeing off his detractors by the truckload just as he goes on establishing himself as one of the most accomplished politicians we've seen in a while. You don't have to like him or his policies.

You just have to give him his due.

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