When we think of worst prime ministers, the completely useless Bill (Sir William) McMahon comes to mind, followed by the negative, sloganeering bully Tony Abbott. However, if you are looking for a PM who did actual damage to the country’s economic and social fabric it’s hard to go past John Winston Howard.
Mike Seccombe has a brilliant article on the topic in the Saturday Paper, where you are allowed one article a month free, or can take out a sub for about $1.90 per week.
- Examine almost any contemporary political problem, from Australia’s growing economic inequality to the declining performance of our school students relative to the rest of the world, to our dying coral reefs, and you will find the fingerprints of John Winston Howard.
He says that Howard is the most right-wing PM we’ve had, and was very effectual in a negative sense. I’ll summarise some of the examples given in the article.
Former big bank economist Saul Eslake reels off a list of economic decisions that made us more unequal:
- “We used to have a social security system that said if you, through no fault of your own, weren’t capable of providing for yourself and your dependants a decent standard of living, the state would help you out.
“Under Howard we moved away from that to a system that said, if you tick a box you can get cash. If you’re a first home buyer, if you have private health insurance, if you have a baby, if you are over 65, if you are a self-funded retiree, you get cash, whether you need it or not.”
There was no rhyme or reason to it, except as an example of class prejudice and to benefit those on whom the government depended for support: the wealthy, the older and the self-employed.
Howard sprayed money around to win votes, but I think he was the first to truly make traditional welfare recipients feel they were the undeserving poor.
Eslake along with Ross Garnaut and Chris Richardson warned that what Howard and Costello were doing was unsustainable. They were:
- “…converting a temporary windfall revenue gain into a permanent erosion of the tax base and a permanent elevation of the welfare spending base.”
The current LNP government has wound back some of the more outrageous superannuation concessions, but they have also shored up the rich by cracking down on the poor, if you think of the Centrelink robo-debt debacle, and the extension of waiting periods for unemployment benefits.
John Hewson says the tax cuts, including those perpetrated by Kevin Rudd to match Howard’s promises, roughly equal today’s deficit. Hewson says that when every year revenue numbers exceeded projections a rational person would have invested the excess in a sovereign wealth fund, to be drawn on in more difficult times.
On schooling David Kemp piled money into private schools, especially for rich kids.
- Per student, the amount going to private schools went up by $1584 between 1999 and 2005, compared with $261 per state school kid.
The consequent shift of kids from more privileged backgrounds into the non-government sector saw the state system increasingly ghettoised.
The current government has cemented the advantage of the rich by, under Gonski, directing as much per student government funding to private schools as to government schools, on the criterion of educational need. Private schools get enough from the government to provide an education comparable to state schools; the fees they pay are pure bonus.
Then rather than have an independent, professional public service, Howard ran the public service through the terrifying Max More-Wilson, who stripped the public service of a great deal of competency and corporate memory, cut it to the bone and centralisiong power in the political office of ministers. Howard also centralised power in the Liberal party, taking a direct and personal interest in matters.
Howard became a cultural warrior, encouraging people to resent other groups, such as blacks, greenies, gays, migrants, and to blame them for their dissatisfactions.
Then he conflated asylum seekers and terrorists and:
- in his next act of desperation, he turned himself into a wartime leader.
That is when he became a pimple on George Dubya Bush’s backside, joining the war in Iraq which had no congressional approval or UN sanction, justifying the war on the existence of weapons of mass destruction, which the intelligence community knew did not exist.
Remember when Howard’s choice for governor-general, the former Anglican archbishop of Brisbane Peter Hollingworth, fell in a heap over his actions, or lack of actions on institutional child sexual abuse?
The opposition wanted to have a royal commission, but Howard said it would only line the pockets of lawyers. However, he was prepared to send in the army on the NT intervention. He also scrapped the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.
- Infamously, he refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations, arguing that to do so would imply “intergenerational guilt” and embrace the “black armband view of history”.
Bait and switch, divide and conquer, blame the victim. That was the Howard way.
Finally, he tipped the balance in industrial relations in favour of the bosses. In a way it was emblematic of how Howard saw human nature and the human condition. Every person was a business centre, responsible for their own future, capable of transacting to their benefit with all other business entities.. The gig economy became embedded in our work culture, making it difficult for people to construct a life. I didn’t go into it, but high house prices are also John Howard’s fault, according to the article.
In the end, the electorate had had enough and spat him out.
Malcolm Turnbull should worry, because the electorate appears to be turning on him too. He has not fixed to their satisfaction the Australia Howard made. Many have been waiting for the real Turnbull to show up. It has been a bit like Waiting for Godot.