Was John Howard only following orders back in 1982?
Anyone who has studied Nazi Germany would have come across Albert
Speer, the diffident young architect Hitler decided would become the
vehicle for his own frustrated artistic ambitions and build a new
Berlin, a capital not just for Germany but the world, who ended up as
Reich economics minister at the height of World War II.

Most will have read Speer’s own account of the regime, Inside the Third
Reich, drafted in Spandau Prison as he served a 20-year sentence for
war crime imposed on him at the Nuremberg Trials.

The Nuremberg verdict remains a matter of debate to this day.
Many think Speer should have gone to gallows. Surely, they argue,
the man in charge of the German war economy, the man who employed the
slave labourers, was aware of what happened to other Nazi captives.

They say Speer’s denial to the court that he knew about the Holocaust
rings false. They dismiss his claim to the international court
that the captured Nazi leaders, whether they had individually
collaborated in crimes against humanity or not, should have accepted a
common culpability just as they would have accepted the homage of the
people in a common triumph if Hitler had been victorious as rhetoric
designed to save his own skin.

One of the most fascinating – if controversial – explorations of Speer
has been carried out by a journalist of Hungarian origins, Gitta
Sereny, who ended up in Britain when she was forced to flee German
occupied France.

In the very first line of her book Albert Speer: His Battle With
Truth, Sereny tells how she “grew to like” the former Nazi – but
despite this, she closes with a very disconcerting tale.

In the late 1970s, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies asked
Speer to assist them in a court case against Holocaust deniers.
He obliged.

Speer supplied a statement in which he spoke of his “tacit acceptance of the persecution and the murder of millions of Jews”.

This was 1978 – and, as Sereny observes, “If Speer had said as much in Nuremberg, he would have been hanged”.

Australia, thankfully, is a very different place to Hitler’s Germany – but our politicians wage their own battles with truth.

Take John Howard and the comments he has always made – or encouraged – about the dying days of the Fraser Government.

Yes, he admits, he was Treasurer as the economy slowed and a government
in decline embarked on a porkbarrelling spree that was futile in
political terms and damaged the economy further.

However, Howard has always taken the classic Nuremberg defence.
He has said he was only following orders – carrying out policy decided
on by Fraser and a majority of the other members of the Cabinet he
served in.

While there have been grumblings, a majority of the members of the
bench of the court of public opinion that Howard has faced have largely
accepted his version of events.

He had done much better than Speer at Nuremberg.

Speer escaped with his life. John Howard has become Prime Minister.

However, in his old age, is Howard admitting that he knew more – or could have done more?

Look at the weekend papers.

On Saturday, in the Weekend Australian, economics editor David Uren and
political correspondent Dennis Shanahan told how “A plan to offer big
tax cuts over several years, starting with a down payment using an
estimated $7 billion budget surplus next year, is at the heart of the
Howard Government’s election campaign.

“In a decisive shift,” they wrote, “the Government has decided to make
tax cuts – to be unveiled in the budget next month – the priority,
rather than just offer them as a leftover after a spending splurge…

“This would defuse Labor’s claim that this is the highest-taxing government in history.

“The concept of tax cuts phased over several years would give voters an
incentive to re-elect the Howard Government, as well as commit the
surpluses of the next administration.

“Critically, Opposition Leader Mark Latham would be confronted with
post-budget, pre-election legislation, putting the program into effect
and forcing him to decide whether to support it now or block it…

“Until now, the Government has downplayed the importance of tax cuts.

“But senior ministers say the Government is aiming to present Mr Latham
with a stark choice of tax cuts or spending on services well before the
election as part of the Prime Minister’s vow to force Mr Latham to make
‘hard decisions’ on policy…

“Labor supported the average $4 a week tax cuts last year because Mr
Latham said ‘you wouldn’t have been able to fund a great slab of
services out of it’.

“The average $4-a-week cuts cost $2.4 billion, which Mr Latham said was
small enough for Labor to pass the Senate, but ministers believe the
Coalition will be able to offer cuts worth twice as much.

“This year’s budget is expected to contain significantly more than the
$1.5billion surplus estimated in the mid-year economic forecast.

“Economists expect the surge in company profits and other tax revenue
to yield $5billion to $7billion to be distributed in tax cuts.

“The Weekend Australian’s recent series, Too Much Tax, revealed that
the Government needed to deliver at least a $3.8 billion cut to return
the additional tax reaped by the Government from bracket creep.
Decisions on the shape of the tax package will be made over the next 10
days before being taken to the Ad Hoc Revenue Committee.

“This comprises Mr Howard, Mr Costello, Revenue Minister Helen Coonan,
Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and Finance Minister Nick Minchin.
The shape of the package will be decided by Mr Costello in consultation
with Mr Howard…”

The full story is at http://theaustralian.news.com.au/printpage/0,5942,9173567,00.html

The Saturday Sydney Morning Herald contained good news too – but of a very different kind.

Louise Dodson and Cosima Marriner outlined “Howard’s pre-poll spending splurge” at http://www.smh.com.au/text/articles/2004/04/02/1080544691240.html

“A pre-Budget spending blitz by the Federal Government will begin next
week with a $100 million early childhood package, followed soon after
by research and innovation measures costing $1 billion a year and a
major program to upgrade the Pacific and Hume highways,” they wrote.

“New funding for extra nursing home places, additional child-care
places, income tax cuts and maternity payments are expected in the May
11 budget, which some ministers see as the beginning of an election
campaign…”

What’s it to be? Tax cuts or more spending? Or does John Howard have something else in mind.

He faces the toughest political circumstances of his time as Prime
Minister – and the most ominous political environment a Liberal
government has seen since he was Malcolm Fraser’s Treasurer.

He isn’t going for the Dubya Double – going for a policy of both tax cuts and more spending?

His conservative colleague in the United States, George W Bush –
another bloke who also faces a looming election – has comprehensively
trashed the surplus doing just that.

His economic approach has worried many of his own fellow Republicans,
fiscal conservatives, supporters of smaller government – and the
markets.

John Howard defended his economic record on Insiders this Sunday.

When Barrie Cassidy asked, “The autumn session of the Parliament is
behind you. Do you feel that you are getting a handle on Mark Latham
now?” this is how the Prime Minister replied:

“That’s a matter for the public to decide. You know I’m
notoriously reluctant to join in commentary. It is going to be
hard for us to win this next election but there is a long time to go
before the election is held and you and I both know the vicissitudes of
national politics, how things can change. We have got two
fundamental things going for us – the first is that we are a united,
strong and stable government and the other is that on the big things
that matter – national security and the economy – we are regarded by
the public as being a superior performer. Now they are things
that are going in our favour…”

Howard ruled out going the full Dubya – going into deficit – but avoided any more detail on the Budget:

BARRIE CASSIDY: Finally on the Budget – and it’s five weeks away
now and already it has been characterised as your tax cuts versus
Labor’s spending on services, is that a fair analysis?

JOHN HOWARD: I’m not going to start marking it out in any
particular way. Our position remains that we have certain things we
have got to spend money on, we will not be going into deficit,
definitely not, and if there is room after those two considerations
then we will provide tax relief. But in what form and how much I don’t
know and I’m not therefore in a position to speculate.

CASSIDY: There was one concept floated over the weekend of tax
cuts phased over several years. That would be new. What has that got
going for it?

HOWARD: Well, I have read the story.

CASSIDY: Has it got anything going for it?

HOWARD: I have read the story.

CASSIDY: The concept itself.

HOWARD: Barrie, I’m not going to start ruling things in or out, we are
only a few weeks off the Budget, so I don’t think I will get into that.

CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning.

So. No confirmation from the Prime Minister on either tax cuts or
spending. But stories like those in the Saturday Sydney Morning
Herald and the Weekend Australian have to come from somewhere.

It’s not illogical to take a guess that good news stories for the
government come from the government – even if they might just be
posturing or preliminary. They’re laying the groundwork for
something that is yet to come.

And how do Howard’s comments that his Government is the “superior performer” on economic policy stack up.

We’ve gone into detail in the past about how shoddy his economic record
really is in the way it most immediately hits most people – in tax.

This was confirmed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last Thursday.

It released figures showing that the tax take across all tiers of
government had gone up an average of $918 per person last year.

The ABS found that the Commonwealth Government took 81.8 per cent tax
revenue – up from 77.4 per cent since the introduction of the GST.

We’ve spoken about how last year’s tax cuts, small as they might be,
were a tacit acceptance of guilt as significant as Speer’s – a
confirmation of the political damage being done even back under Simon
Crean by Labor’s line that this is biggest taxing government in
Australia’s history.

Lines from politicians like “we will not be going into deficit,
definitely not” are a much clichés as the “I was only following orders”
Nuremberg defence.

The Government’s mollycoddling of the ethanol industry – if begging can
be classed as industry – demonstrates how it is prepared to distribute
significant quantities of financial largesse in the hopes of catching a
few votes.

There was no denial on Insiders that the Government wouldn’t go for tax cuts and wouldn’t go on a spending spree – or try both.

Getting away with something like that is big ask – even for “superior performers”.

The fact that John Howard seems prepared to let his ministers or
minions float ideas that are seemingly contradictory or economically
risky says little about the store he really puts in economic
management. Winning elections seems to be what matters.

All of which makes the stories about John Howard back in 1981 and 82
look as doubtful as Speer’s account at Nuremberg of what he knew about
the atrocities of the regime he served.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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