Another commemoration, although perhaps not celebration, of the
anniversary will take place tomorrow and Saturday when academics gather
at the National Museum in Canberra for a conference on “John Howard’s Decade”.

Many famous names (well, famous among political commentators, anyway)
will present papers tomorrow, including Malcolm Mackerras, Andrew
Leigh, Peter Brent (Mr Mumble), Greg Melleuish, Nick Economou, Jeremy
Shearmur, Murray Goot, John Uhr and others. On Saturday, the public
will be invited to hear more popular speakers such as Carmen Lawrence,
Paul Kelly and Judith Brett. Gerard Henderson will speak at the
conference dinner on Friday night, on “It’s John Howard’s Fault:

I’ll be giving a paper on “The Liberal Party and the Lessons of
Victory.” My claim is that whereas most successful parties learn
valuable lessons from defeat, the Liberal Party emerged from its run of
defeats prior to 1996 looking very much the same as it had started out;
it experimented during that period, but it ended up dropping the
experiments when they didn’t work.

Instead, the key experiences that have made the Liberal Party what it
is now are the lessons it has learned from John Howard’s victories. It
has learned, as I put it: “that elections are won by a combination of
ambush and vagueness; that the opponent has to be always in one’s
sights; that economic management is something to be boasted about, not
explained; that right-wing populism can safely be flirted with; and
that both the Party and (when in government) the organs of state must
bow to centralised control, and ultimately to the will of the leader.”

The paper then questions whether this all amounts to a viable long-term
strategy for the party, or whether the Howard program will come to
grief when attempted under a leader with less political skill and
without John Howard’s personal qualities. The experience of the state
Liberal Parties that have tried to emulate Howard’s strategy, with
uniform lack of success, suggests that this will be a major problem for
the party’s future.