John Howard beat
Bob Hawke into second place as Australia’s second longest serving Prime
Minister today, but what does he has to show for his longevity?

It would be churlish not to acknowledge John Howard’s
achievement today – especially when you see how his rival, if not his
rival’s party, has bombed in today’s Newspoll.

It has a smack of the Barnetts about it – and, yes, they’re
previewing their own biography of the PM – but academics and former
Liberal staffers Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington have written a
fair piece with their piece “Howard betters Ming” in the Oz:

Today,
John Howard surpasses Bob Hawke as Australia’s second longest serving
prime minister, a tenure of eight years, nine months, 11 days and
counting. Only his political hero Robert Menzies has served as prime
minister for longer…

Success for conservative leaders
is measured mostly by their number of election wins, since keeping the
ALP off the treasury benches is their most important task. Four
election victories – the last two with increased majorities – is a
successful stint at the helm by any calculation…

The
‘Howard’s battlers’ myth has been effective, given the large number of
Australians who consider themselves battlers. But there was substance
behind the rhetoric about elites and battlers. Rather than take
blue-collar votes from traditional Labor areas, Howard has made the
emerging middle class his own.

Those on the suburban
fringes, many of whom are in traditionally blue-collar trades, are
often subcontractors rather than unionised employees. Howard was the
first Australian leader to tap into this transformation, recognising
the strong constituency for industrial relations reform outside the
confines of big business. It was Keating, remember, who created the
Pauline Hanson phenomenon and Howard who vanquished her movement…

Vanquished
it by taking on its policies? At least it’s interesting to see what
Onselen and Errington nominate as the Prime Minister’s weak spot:

Like
all political leaders, Howard has also clocked up his fair share of
leadership failures – notably Aboriginal affairs. His rebuff of
symbolic reconciliation has upset Aboriginal communities while his
practical reconciliation has amounted to little. Howard’s 1998 victory
speech promised to address the plight of Aboriginal communities as a
priority. That promise remains sadly unfulfilled.

One
might have thought that the Government’s failure to entertain serious
economic reform also warranted a mention. For all he’s said since the
early 1980s, John Howard has delivered nothing beyond the half-hearted
package that accompanied the GST. His commitment to further opening up
and streamlining of the Australian economy remains in doubt.

John
Howard’s continued fondness for business welfare smacks at times of
corruption – Manildra, anyone? He is guilty of economically dangerous
pandering to special interest groups like the wrinklies that will be
politically impossible to claw back, his spending commitments at the
last election were reckless, foolish and unnecessary – and we learned
plenty about the shamelessness of pork barrelling, Howard style, in the
last few sitting weeks of Parliament this year.

Indeed, we
learned much about his complete lack consideration for the normal
proprieties of government and the concept and traditions of ministerial
responsibilities. Howard, for all his posturing when he returned as
opposition leader and in his early days as Prime Minister, is a moral
and ethical void. No minister has been forced to resign since travel
rorts seven years ago. Politics surmounts principle.

Onselen
and Errington have a point when they say, “Howard’s achievements as
prime minister outstrip those of Menzies. In Menzies’ day, Labor was a
mess, split down the middle and tarnished by cold war communism. Howard
has overcome a much more professional and united Labor Party, in
control of every state and territory.”

These pars, however, are open to question:

Where Menzies left the Liberal Party bereft of leadership talent, Howard has nurtured future prime ministers.

Peter
Costello is poised to assume the leadership. Even Costello’s biggest
rival, Tony Abbott, has declared him heir apparent. Howard has always
promoted Abbott but never at the expense of Costello’s natural
succession.

The recent election of high-profile Malcolm
Turnbull and former federal director Andrew Robb are two more examples
of Howard readying the party for life after he has gone. Despite their
public disagreements over the republic, Howard recognises Turnbull is
good for the future of the Liberal Party and supports him accordingly.

They’re
sorta true. Abbott, in the wake of the never fully explored Australians
for Honest Government scandal, seems to have realised that he is too,
er, volatile to become Prime Minister. Andrew Robb, another Liberal who
was scarcely born with a silver spoon in his mouth, should be a
significant catch if he successfully makes the transition from
background boy to politician. Malcolm Turnbull has obtained his wealth
by effort, not inheritance, and is clearly a man of immense talent. He
is also, alas, a man of immense ego with a fondness for doing things
the Point Piper way. If, however, he learnt something standing on
street corners during the Wentworth campaign, he should flourish in
Parliament, too.

Peter Costello, however, is a different
matter. Put simply, the chest beater of the H R Nicholls Society looks
like a wimp nowadays – a policy and political wimp.

It
looks as if he is unable to make a move without Michael Kroger in close
support – and Kroger cannot swing the leadership for him. Chris Pyne –
surprise, surprise – is not an adequate substitute.

Onselen
and Errington talk about “Howard’s humility”. Sheer bloody mindedness
would be more like it. Don’t they remember how that names yours truly
has done so much to popularise, “The Rodent”, came about? Because the
little bugger just gnawed and gnawed and gnawed away.

A
wimpish logical successor and a Prime Minister who, in the words of
Margaret Thatcher, seems determined to go “on and on and on” can be a
recipe for disaster. Look at the mess Thatcher’s complete dominance of
her own party created.

Onselen and Errington say “Howard’s
critics on the Left, having fired their best shots many years ago, now
bemoan the Prime Minister’s ‘luck’ in presiding over a strong economy
handed to him by the reforms of the previous government.”

Politicians,
however, tend to make their own luck. Onselen and Errington are no
doubt familiar with Robert Rhode James’ classic “Churchill: A Study in
Failure, 1900-1939”, and his shrewd observation line “Foresight in
politics is rare, and is usually a matter of fortune rather than
genius”.

Let’s wait to see what happens once John Howard
gets control of Senate next year. If he implements the economic reform
program he claims to have advocated for the last two decades, rather
than just nobbles his perceived enemies – then follows Menzies’ lead
and become only our second leader to get out on top rather than wait
for the voters, his party or death to end his leadership, then John
Howard may go down as a great, rather than just a clever, dogged,
ruthless and, yes, lucky Prime Minister.