Underrated: John Howard

The former Australian leader’s continuing popularity has befuddled the news media and the political class

Australasia Underrated

John Howard has always been underrated — often by his friends, and always by his opponents. Although it is more than six years since he was Australian Prime Minister, he has now slipped easily into the role of an elder statesman who chooses his topics and words carefully. To his surprise, he found himself quoted widely in the British press for a recent lecture he gave to the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London, criticising attempts to silence dissent on the topic. However, he told me he is determined to confine himself to a small range of topics where he is well informed, rather than become one of those media commentators with an opinion on every current topic. After 11 and a half years in office and four election victories in a row, he will leave that to his colleagues still in the game. “I owe them my silence,” he emphasises. One of the issues he is most concerned about is the national history curriculum, drawn up in 2012 by an old radical leftist colleague of Julia Gillard, which was installed by her government in all Australian schools earlier this year. To Howard’s dismay, the curriculum no longer discusses Australia’s British heritage or its Judaeo-Christian culture and tradition.

When he lost office in October 2007, he felt the public had had enough of him for a while. He left parliament with the firm intention of disappearing from view for a respectable period. He decided not to comment publicly on the affairs of the Labor government that defeated him or on the Liberal Party opposition. In his mind, he said, he kept open the option of responding to substantial public criticisms of his former policies, but found the opportunities were rare. 

So, to keep his hand in, he accepted an offer from HarperCollins to write his political autobiography. The writing, editing and production progressed throughout 2008 and 2009 while his party went through the turmoil of blooding and then discarding two alternative opposition leaders. 

By the time the autobiography, Lazarus Rising, was launched in October 2010, the political situation was transformed. His own party had settled on its third leader, Tony Abbott, while Julia Gillard had staged a successful coup against Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and formed a minority government in coalition with the Greens. Amid all this high political drama, John Howard was a forgotten man.

Yet Lazarus Rising became the Australian publishing sensation of the year. This was partly because its author is a good writer and has a story that has always gone down well in Australia: ordinary boy from the suburbs rises to the top. It was also because Howard worked very hard to sell the book. He accepted almost every invitation to speak about it, no matter how small or remote the occasion, and drew crowds of fans who wanted to talk to him personally. 

Meanwhile, his publishers were ordering one reprint after another. By the time he finished, the book had sold more than 100,000 copies, making it Australia’s all-time best-selling political autobiography. 

This confounded people in the publishing industry who had long based their commissions on the assumption that leftists bought more books than conservatives and that despite Howard’s long time in office he was not a glamorous figure and would be hard to sell. The book’s success demonstrated yet again that most people in the political class and the news media still did not understand his appeal. 

So let me try to explain it. Howard was a conservative who successfully appealed to electorates that were once regarded as diehard Labor. He appealed to blue-collar workers partly by offering to turn them into contractors and small businesspeople. It also helped that in Howard’s term of office, his free market economic policies saw average real wages grow by 21 per cent.

But just as importantly, he appealed to traditional values like patriotism and an orderly immigration process, which intellectuals and the leftist political class thought should be consigned to the dustbin of history. He could appeal to blue-collar workers convincingly because of his own background, especially his education at a state selective high school in Sydney in the 1950s, where he absorbed the prevailing egalitarian ethos and its disdain for self-promoters, salesmen and show-offs.

He was never impressed by spin doctors and knew the voters he needed could see through them too. He knew if he told political lies to his voters they would not be fooled for long. 

At the same time as the old state high school playgrounds enforced egalitarianism, the curriculum in their classrooms offered the best of British high culture, especially Shakespeare: in my case A Midsummer Night’s Dream in first year, then Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. All up, it was a formidable combination that gave its students the confidence to attempt anything. It is little wonder our elder statesman is in such despair about the educational legacy that his Labor successors have created.