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Prime Minister interviews


John Howard interview

2 December 2000

Published in the Age, Sydney Morning Herald, West Australian and Courier-Mail

HIS MOTHER WAS worried about the corrupting influence of Australian society in the 1950s: when bodgies - or, worse, widgies - might contrive to lead a boy astray, with a lime spider or a cigarette.

He was forbidden to join neighbourhood gangs. Rabbiting and fishing with friends were banned. He never attended a school camp, his mother always sending in a note.

His mother was also present to help negotiate his first salary. He lived at home with her till his thirties. John Howard may have stretched the apron strings about as far as apron strings will stretch.

Howard was encircled by stout walls - his deafness, his widowed mother’s dominion, and Australia’s 1950s suburban monoculture - which may have triple-insulated him against the era’s changing views of nationalism, culture and geopolitics.

The cocooning did not produce an elitist: the family was dead against pretension. And it shaped a fierce work ethic, as well as some fine old world manners. (David Barnett writes in his Howard biography that when Alexander Downer publicly blundered in 1996, Howard took him aside and urged him to “make the period ahead one of quiet achievement”.) But it also fashioned the narrow spiritual horizons which are so often remarked on, and an unreflective mind.

“He doesn’t have much time for contemplating,” a senior aide told me. “He’s too busy.”

In 1971 John Howard married Janette, and left home - years too late, some thought.

I MET THE Prime Minister the day the Pope declared a patron saint for politicians: another initiative which may have come years too late.

His inner sanctum was perhaps thirty feet long, with Menzies’ desk at one end, and four leather chairs at the other.

Howard’s beloved “budget decrements” have impacted here too. The gentleman who’d opened the curtains and replenished the cigar supply for former unionist Bob Hawke is long-gone. John Howard may be a tool of international capitalism, but he does not want a valet.

The echoes of Keating’s booming Mahler symphonies have likewise faded. “He doesn’t have much time for music,” another aide had said. “He’s too busy.”

The Howard handshake is a bone-chipper: it has caused one frail constituent to nearly faint with pain.

His flesh-tones are more vivid than those of the washed-out creature who has, for a generation, inhabited the nation’s TV sets. The dead eyes of his television doppelganger  are gone too: his eyes are one corner of a somewhat muted Howard universe where some real elan shines through.

Unlike Malcolm Fraser, whose smile could curdle water, Howard has an endearing grin: like that of a clever schoolboy who’s thinking, “I don’t  like to boast - but I’ve done it!”

The eyebrows are a curious affair. From mid-forehead they begin to bush magnificently, then stop half-way: as if the Creator - bent on repeating his Menzies masterpiece - had incurred a budget decrement.

And it’s true what they say: he has a lot more presence than the opaque character who is slandered nightly in a million Australian loungerooms. Not for nothing did Kim Beazley describe him as “the most substantial conservative politician of his generation”.

We broke the ice with a story about - ice. The one thing he can remember from his only meeting with Menzies, he says, is the old man dropping an ice cube on the carpet of the Lodge, and bending his significant frame to pick it up.

Did he place the cube in the hand of the awestruck Young Liberal, and send him forth into the future? No: it had been destined for a martini.

Those martinis of Menzies’, I said, were reputedly lethal.

“Yes, I’ve had that confirmed. When we moved into the Lodge we invited his daughter and her husband over. We offered martinis, in honour of her father’s liking for that drink.”

In an attempt to identify the Howard bottom line, I asked him what he thought Menzies’ legacy was.

“Stability and predictability,” he said, poker-faced. “He provided a framework of stability and predictability.”

Having listened, in the same room, to the vaulting schemes of his  predecessors, it was a surprising thing to hear from a Prime Minister.

“It’s always a mistake to suggest you’re going to turn the world on its head. People by and large want stability and predictability.

They want governments to make decisions and change things...but they don’t want to be constantly confronted with the idea of upheaval and revolution.”

Where Keating’s shadows had a soaring, gothic quality, Howard’s are the oblongs of the suburban afternoon.

But one consequence of his passionlessness which is seldom credited, is that he’s not a hater. The warring tribes of federal Parliament are riddled with mutual contempt, fuelled by childish projections. (Literally, “unacknowledged psychic contents attributed to others”.) We could do worse than to have a Prime Minister with poor skills in invective, and few dark corners.

CONTRARY TO MYTH, the Liberals have often been our party of social progress - giving Australia its first arts funding, its first women parliamentarians and ministers, the world’s second old age pension, establishing the Australian Film Corporation, obtaining World Heritage listings for the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu, and giving Aboriginals the vote.

But where now, I asked John Howard, were the Liberal Party’s liberals?

There were people around, he thought, “who might be regarded as broadly fitting that bill”.

But more to the point: “When a lot of socially progressive policies were being followed, it was never thought that one of the consequences...might be thirty years later a feeling by society that maybe we’d gone a bit too far. [For example] the mainstream view on drugs is more supportive of the attitude I have.”

Drug policy seemed worth pursuing: a reasonable bell-wether of the Howard social agenda.

The war on drugs has been lost, I said.

“There’s a bit of debate about that. But the other approaches which have been trialed in places like Switzerland have not been dramatically successful either.”

His brought up the example of Sweden. “The Swedish experience is quite interesting. Sweden was something of an archetypal, small-l liberal, let-her-rip society when I was much younger. And yet it decided in the eighties to go in the other direction on drugs.

And it had a lot more success.”

Say cannabis were decriminalised, I ventured: that would take billions of dollars from organised crime...

Howard’s device to shut you up is a very loud “Well...”

“Well , except that a lot of the crime money would then just go into harder drugs.”

These arguments were apparently the pillars underpinning the nation’s drug policy, so they seemed worth following up.

Martin Killias, Professor of Criminology at the University of Lausanne, told me that since the Swiss Government liberalised its approach, and started prescribing free heroin to hard-core addicts, “criminal offences among addicts have dropped by 50 to 90 percent, according to the type of offence considered." Addicts re-selling drugs (the biggest link in the “recruitment” chain) has declined by 80 percent. And addicts’ drug consumption had dropped markedly.

This did not seem to support the PM’s belief that Switzerland’s liberalisation policy had “not been dramatically successful”.
The coercive approach in Sweden, Howard claimed, had “had a lot more success”.

“That’s not true,” said Henrik Tham, Professor of Criminology at the University of Stockholm. “Our strict policies of criminalising drugs began around 1980. In 1993 consumption was made a jailable offence. Since then, drug use has doubled.”

Professor Tham’s wide-ranging 1998 study, “Swedish Drug Policy”, reveals that Sweden’s increasingly coercive model has coincided with rising convictions, drug deaths, and budgets.

Howard had confirmed that George W Bush had been his preferred candidate for the US Presidency - “Oh, yeah I think I’d have a greater identification with him” - yet it was Bush who’d stated several times in his campaign that America’s war on drugs was a failure. (Washington’s Institute for Policy Studies calls it a “monumental  failure”.)

Finally, Howard’s objection to decriminalising cannabis was that “a lot of the crime money would then just go into harder drugs.”

"To suggest that decriminalising cannabis would increase criminal investment in harder drugs is not warranted,” said Dr John Fitzgerald, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Melbourne University. “Cannabis is mostly decriminalised in three Australian states already. There is no evidence that these changes have increased problems with amphetamines or heroin in those states."

ANOTER CORROSIVE NATIONAL problem which took root in the 1970s - when Howard was cutting his ministerial teeth - was East Timor. With the 25th anniversary of the fall of Dili coming up on December 7, I asked Howard how he’d viewed the developing Timor tragedy during those times.

“A lot of people believed at the time that there would be an attempt made by the Indonesians to win the hearts and minds of the East Timorese. And it was the cumulative failure of the Indonesians to do that that weighed on a lot of people... They’d had a lot of time to bring about a change, and they’d just totally failed to do so.”

But that was quarter of a century later. I reminded him that he was a senior Minister in the Fraser Government - which had failed to protest the slaughter of 200,000 Timorese, seized the Darwin radio transmitter which was East Timor’s only link to the outside world, arrested a ship bound for Timor with life-saving medical supplies, and formally recognised the annexation.

“Well,” he said, “Hindsight’s a wonderful thing...”

But there were  people at the time pointing out what was going on.

“There were, yes... I’m not saying it was somebody else’s fault. I accepted the broad view that was held quite widely in the foreign affairs circles, and on both sides of politics - the pragmatic view if you like, the Woolcott view - and I went along with it.”

Was that view wrong?

“Well, I think probably if we’d persisted with it for too long as a nation, when evidence emerged that it wasn’t working... but once again it was not something which was constantly on my watch, because I was dealing with other issues.”

Harold Macmillan’s collective noun for Prime Ministers was “a lack of principals”. Not that they have the morphology of a species: Howard’s contrast with his predecessors is striking. Hawke made jokes about "trusting the government" in a central European accent, blowing thunderclouds with a cigar. Keating adorned his passionate didacticism - and the coffee table - with some impressive Italian shoe leather.

Howard is humbler. He did, after all, endure a 25-year succession of defeats - for pre-selection, the party leadership and the Prime Ministership - which would have sent more mercurial men scuttling back to the suburbs. Those surprised by his present obstinacy should study his CV.

Having survived all that, what were his successes as a leader?

His looked startled. “My successors ?”

Yes, I said - mis-hearing him as well. We stared in mutual incomprehension. Your policy successes, I prompted.

“Oh - my success-es. I thought you said success-ors  - I’m sorry. My success-es . Well, quite a number. Gun control. I’m fiercely proud of that. East Timor. The broad economic reform agenda, not only with tax reform but industrial relations reform. Getting unemployment down to its lowest level in ten years.”

He might have added low inflation, protracted growth, a budget surplus, and the most radical public service reform in 75 years. Howard may be the most conservative Prime Minister since Stanley Bruce - but he’s far from the least successful.

Even personally, he has some winning qualities - such as his lack of malice. Despite Andrew Peacock’s many attempts to destroy him, he quickly offered him the US Ambassadorship. And he has said Kim Beazley is the one Labor person he’d serve under in a government of national unity.

It must be consoling, I said to him, to have someone he so respects leading the Loyal Opposition?

His brow furrowed: he became very earnest. “I don’t deny having said those things. I did. It’s true. I think we had quite a good relationship. Even under the stress and strain of him being the Opposition Leader and my being the Prime Minister, we still... well I  certainly try and retain a degree of civility about it. And I believe I have extended courtesies to him as an Opposition Leader that weren’t extended to me by my predecessor as Prime Minister. I don’t walk away from what I’ve said in the past. Obviously we see each other in a different light now, because we’re immediate competitors. But I have no personal animus towards him at all. You only demean yourself if you don’t maintain courtesies.”

Howard is himself a model of courtesy: though his courtesy should not be confused with wimpishness. During the decade or so it was in the desert, the Coalition acquired a cricket team of actual, or potential, federal leaders: Howard himself, Peacock, Elliot, Bjelke-Petersen, Downer, Reith, Costello, Hewson, McLachlan, Bishop, Greiner - with Jeff Kennett bringing on the drinks. Toward the end of this slow drizzle of champions, it seemed that Howard’s hopes for a second chance were nil. But he hung on.

A little of this iron has now entered his soul where Indonesia is concerned. Howard is backing away rapidly from Australia’s Suharto-era appeasement phase - and shows signs of striking a viable policy balance. On the one hand:

“A lot of my opponents in the Labor Party say I should stop this silly business of wanting President Wahid to come here first - that I should just go up and see him. Well, I think it’s appropriate that he come to Australia. I’ve been to Indonesia on three occasions.”

On the other: “I don’t think it enhances the dignity of Australia to respond to each and every thing that is said about us. Occasionally the greater strength is displayed by allowing the comments to go past unremarked.”

That implied, I said, that quite a few things are said about us.

He smiled. “Of course there are.”

TO ACADEMIC DAVID Adams, Howard is “able but not inspiring, firm but not exalted, never great but ever adequate”.

Writer Guy Rundle - who has penned Your Dreaming: an evening of culture with the Prime Minister for Max Gillies - says, "I think Patrick Cook used to call Howard the Minister for Grazed Knees and Beetroot Sandwiches. He's quite gleeful about being everything you escaped the suburban 1950s to be rid of."

To journalist David Leser he is “short, colourless, bespectacled and hard of hearing”. American writer Bill Bryson says, “Imagine a very committed funeral home director - someone whose burning ambition from the age of eleven was to be a funeral home director...then halve his personality and halve it again, and you have pretty well got John Howard.”

Paul Keating called him a "mangy maggot". Ian Macphee said he would be a “sorry footnote” to our history. To Jeff Kennett he was “that rodent”, or simply “the little c___”.

Howard is a world-class provoker of abuse, and it doesn’t come from thin air. In the 1980s he opposed South African sanctions, and suggested reducing Asian immigration. In 1997 he reduced immigration to accommodate Hansonism. By the time he finally spoke out against Pauline Hanson herself, every commentator in the country - including all the conservatives - had beaten him to it. (“I defend that,” he told me. “I think there was a media over-reaction to her which was quite absurd.”)

The unease over this is still felt in Asia. “People here were used to your previous Prime Minister,” says Bambang Harymurti, Editor-in-Chief of Tempo magazine in Jakarta. “Against that background, there was concern about Mr Howard’s lack of response to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. There is a lurking suspicion that, under the veneer of Australia’s friendliness, a kind of subtle White Australia Policy is being re-considered.”

Howard had added one more item to his list of policy successes:

“Re-balancing our foreign policy away from what I saw as an obsessive Asia-only approach, to an approach that properly sees Australia as having links with Europe and North America as well as Asia. In the Keating years we were obsessed with Asia.”

“That comment,” says Kiwee Chongkiwttavorn, Managing Editor of The Nation in Bangkok, “Will make headlines in all the Asian wire services. Howard does not understand Asia at all. This will make it look like Mahathir was right all along. During the Keating years Australia had a very good position in Asia. Under Howard, this has slowly changed, and many controversial things have happened. For example Pauline Hanson: he could have immediately spoken out against her, but chose not to do so.”

Howard’s response to Hanson was, said Paul Kelly, “a study in leadership failure”. Michelle Grattan said it cost Howard “moral authority and political support”. Laurie Oakes said “Why will he not lead? For that matter, why will he not even follow?”

Howard’s next-most-infamous failure to act relates to the long-awaited apology to the Stolen Generation. What went through his head when he saw Midnight Oil mount the Olympic stage with their SORRY T-shirts?

“It didn’t bother me very much. It didn’t.”

It was obviously a message for John Howard.

“Well, I’ve no doubt Peter Garrett intended it as such. But it didn’t bother me. It’s a free country. If they want to wear “sorry” on their T-shirts, that’s fine. I don’t mind. No, can I say, it didn’t really... I didn’t... I wasn’t myself especially concerned about that.” He thought for a minute. “Not concerned at all,” he emphasised. “From time immemorial, artists and entertainers have been sending political messages... I really didn’t get upset about that at all.”

Howard’s final claim to infamy is his unwillingness to cut ties with Queen Elizabeth: his second and more serious apron strings predicament.

But given the present global economic currents, his information age credentials deserve much sharper scrutiny than his monarchism.

Russ Bate, Pacific Vice-President of Sun Microsystems, recently said that “no-one could look at the Australian Government...and say: ‘We see their vision for Australia in the next ten years’”. Howard says: “With great respect, that’s the almost ritualistic thing that is said by a lot of corporate people.”

James Wolfenson’s idea of Australia educating the developing world via the Internet might be fine, he said, but “I still think the best thing  developed countries can do for developing countries is give them trade access.”

Howard may throw money at innovation, education, research and development in the 2001 election “auction”. But it’s notable that - in a world where Australia faces economic obliteration without them - these things do not presently galvanise his Government.

THERE'S LITTLE REASON for Howard to change. The “restraints” on change - psychological ones, arising from a circumscribed childhood; those stemming from his life-experience, which has been much-focussed on economics; and the political requirement for the votes of conservatives - are way stronger than any new paradigms, or temptations, which may present themselves in his seventh decade.

As long as he prospers by the very qualities which limit change, there can be little incentive for him to alter them.

Not that it matters in the medium-term. Australia’s New Disposition - reconciled, republican, educated, Asian and wired - won’t be thwarted by John Howard’s doughty rear-guard actions.

On the other hand, that particular bus won’t leave until everyone’s on board - not just the inner metropolitanites who occupy .01 percent of our continent.

Can that happen the present climate?

It may be three years since howling mobs swirled round poor muddled Pauline Hanson, pointing fingers like grand inquisitors, and screaming “Burn the witch!”. But the fingers are still levelled. Right across the wide brown land, there’s little willingness to grant legitimacy to an opposite point of view.

It’s possible that the nation will have a while to meditate on this lesson: it seems that John Howard is not, after all, locked into retiring during a third term.

“I said that if the party wanted me to, I’d lead them to the next election. The indications are that they do want me to. And then - at some point through there - I’d assess how much longer I was going to go on. I didn’t say I was definitely going to retire during the next term,” he emphasised. “But I acknowledge that I’m 61 now: I’ll be 62 at the time of the next election. And perhaps by the time I’m around 64...you might sort ask yourself are you going to perhaps...”

He had a long think about this one.

“I mean, nothing’s forever - but I’m very healthy. The job continues to challenge me. The idea of retiring from it doesn’t really grab me at all.”

History might judge him as less of a Bradman than a night watchman. But history doesn’t decide elections. There is a swathe of humanity out there as patriotic, hard-working and stubborn as he is. Until they are not just persuaded of, but accommodated within, the shining future envisaged by some, it will remain one of those abstractions, or visions, of which John Howard is so dubious.
"Fundamentally,” said Sir Robert Menzies at the end of his life, “We depend on each other in this country. I believe that the future of Australia is assured and, indeed, will exceed anybody’s expectations. And if that’s not true, I will rise some day from my grave and shake my fist at all of you."

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