Just how did our Prime Minister earned his nickname, “Honest John”?
Memories blurred by long sessions in the non-members bar, press gallery
journalists and political junkies start the debate:
A former press gallery correspondent writes:

“A few of us are trying to recall the origins of the
moniker ‘Honest John’ and I wonder if your readers with better
functioning synapses can help. One of the ‘singularly sozzled scribes’
I’ve talked to vaguely remember a headline from The Illawarra Mercury
in the early 1980s in reference to then Treasurer Howard’s dudding of
the Australian taxpayers over the “fistful of dollars” promised in the
1980 election.

But he may be in the confused state that many of us, who used to spend
more time in the non-members bar than the gallery, are nowadays. I have
a recollection of ALP members waving the newspaper front-page around in
the House of Reps.

Maybe there’s a tea-totaller around from those days who actually remembers?”

CRIKEY: One press gallery type claimed this week it dated back
to his decision as Treasurer to go after the bottom of the harbour tax
schemes when many Liberal supported were snared by it. Whatever the
case, honesty has gone from being John Howard’s biggest asset to his
biggest liability, which is a spectacular performance.

One Labor-leaning subscriber writes mischievously:

“Dear Crikey,

One of my relatives studied law at the University of Sydney with John
Howard. He swears that John Howard was being called Honest John
way back then. Apparently it had something to do with an exam…

Comrade Clouseau”

This sounds suspiciously like propaganda, but we’d love to hear from
any of young John’s contemporaries at Sydney Uni when he was a wild and
rebellious student in the ’60s, smoking pot and burning bras and draft

A press gallery veteran tells us: “The moniker was awarded to him
because he fought the attempts of Reg Withers and other prominent
Liberals to promote dodgy Bottom of the Harbour tax evasion
schemes. Granted in honour, sadly the sobriquet subsequently took
on a life of its own.”

Another contributor has done something that Crikey can be rarely accused of – research:

“Sorry to disappoint you that I cannot claim to be “a
tea-totaller around from those days” in sending you what I found in
reference to the “Honest John” history.

I searched on the www.aph.gov.au web site and send you the three oldest
search results of the 377 “Honest John” references found, dating back
to 20 October, 1983.

Personally, I always thought it was Paul Keating that provided John
Howard with the moniker “Honest John”. Hope this helps your search.

Sue McDonald”

October, 1983
Page 2076
Speaker Graeme Campbell (KALGOORLIE, ALP, Government)
Interjector Dr Charlesworth; Mr SPEAKER

This man of integrity, this honest
John, lied to the Australian people. He told the Australian people that
the deficit would be around $6 1/2 billion. It was much closer to $10
billion. When little Johnny clawed his way to power the current account
deficit in this country was around $1 billion. When he left it was $9
billion. In other words, this country had purchased from overseas $9
billion more than it had sold. Noddy now has the audacity and the
hypocrisy to come into this House and talk about hypocrisy. I say to
the honourable member for Bennelong that the honourable member for Port
Adelaide will rejoin the Cabinet ultimately because he is a man who has
never lost touch with the aspirations of the ordinary people of
Australia. These people are, collectively, the hope and real wealth of
this country…

2. APPROPRIATION BILL (No. 1) 1985-86: Second Reading
12 September, 1985
Speaker: Michael Lee (DOBELL, ALP, Government)

Mr LEE (Dobell) (5.32pm) I rise to support the Hawke Labor
Government’s third Budget. Three weeks ago the honourable member for
Kooyong (Mr Peacock), as Leader of the Opposition, delivered the
Liberal Party’s reply to this Budget. The honourable member’s assault
on this Government’s economic blueprint for the coming financial year
was so devastating that the honourable member for Bennelong (Mr Howard)
has now gained the leadership of the Liberal Party. The honourable
member for Bennelong is the Opposition’s nominee for the most important
job in this country. Judged by any reasonable standards of behaviour
the honourable member for Bennelong is unfit to lead honourable members
opposite, let alone lead our country. The honourable member for
Bennelong is unfit to be the
leader of the Opposition because during his five years service as
Malcolm Fraser’s Treasurer and his two years service as Malcolm
Fraser’s loyal deputy leader he misled this House, the Premiers and the
Australian people. In his five years as Treasurer he broke solemn
promises, went back on guarantees and cooked the books whenever
necessary. Following his victory in last week’s leadership battle I was
sickened to read in some newspapers that the new Leader of the
Opposition has been christened Honest John. Unfortunately, Honest John
made quite a few honest mistakes during his stewardship as our
country’s Treasurer. Today I wish to deal with only nine of those
honest mistakes…

3. Question without Notice: PENSIONS: ASSETS TEST

Date13 September, 1985
Questioner: Gear Mr G. (CANNING, ALP, Government)
Responder: Hawke The Hon R.J.L. (WILLS, THE PRIME MINISTER, ALP)


Will the Prime Minister inform the House whether the
Government continues to believe that an assets test is essential to
maintaining a needs based welfare system?

I am indebted to the honourable member for his question.
I say without equivocation to the House that the assets test is a
logical and necessary expression of any genuine commitment to the
pursuit of a needs based welfare system. There is the clear statement
by me, on behalf of the Government. The time has come when we have to
ask of the Leader of the Opposition: What is the position of Honest

Other subscribers have their theories. Consumer banking crusader Peter Mair recalls:


In the mid 70’s JH, then a junior Minister for Consumer Affairs, was
under fire in the wake of a political mishap. He appeared on the
Carleton-Walsh Report and, after a long and scathing run in, was asked
by an indignant Richard Carleton to ‘please explain’.

JH simply said: “I made a mistake”. Carleton, flabbergasted, responded:
‘that is a very honest admission’ and the interview dissolved into a

A Similar Howard moment on a Four Corners expose of ‘immigration’
issues some time later made Billy Sneddon look like a credible
potential leader.

Peter Mair”

Community campaigner Julianne Bell writes:

“It is my understanding that Honest John was an ironic title given to John Howard following the election of Hawke in 1983.

It was discovered that, as Treasurer, John Howard had provided
misinformation and misled the public about size of the deficit under
the Fraser Government.

Before the election Howard had given it at around $4.1 billion but it
was discovered when, two weeks after the election, Prime Minister-elect
Hawke released preliminary estimates from Treasury revealing that the
deficit left by the outgoing government for 1983-84 might be as much as
$9.6 billion. Howard apparently managed to lay the blame on Fraser

I am quoting almost directly from a book – a very slim volume – by
Robert Haupt and Michelle Grattan called “31 Days to Power – Hawke’s
Victory” published immediately after the election.

The book is out of print. Two weeks ago I obtained it from a
second hand book shop as the whole question of why Howard was called
Honest John was bugging me. I had to follow it up and confirm my
memories of that election.

You may remember that was the election when Fraser told the elderly
that if Hawke was elected they should put their savings under their
beds because their savings would not be safe in the banks. Hawke
made his famous quip that they couldn’t put their savings under their beds because that was where “The Reds” were!

Julianne Bell”

A former Labor advisor puts it this way:

“Honest John is a nickname in the fine traditions of Australian sarcasm.

He is Honest John in the same way we call blokes with red hair “bluey”
and Leo McLeay was known as “leaping” (ie. – because he’s not very

He got it because of the 1977 election when as Treasurer he promised a
“fistful of dollars” in tax cuts, then as soon as the election was out
of the way, took it all back and more – actually raising taxes,
promoting the immortal Illawarra Mercury headline of “Liar Liar”.

In other words, Howard is called Honest John because he is anything but honest.

27 years later nothing has changed.

Terry True Believer”

Got an opinion, or a better memory? Send your theories to our man in Canberra, hugo @melbpc.org.au

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