Upwards of a hundred academics gathered in Canberra last Friday and Saturday “to evaluate the legacy of John Howard’s Decade“.
As expected, there were few Howard loyalists among them, but anyone
looking for a spell of ranting by unreconstructed Howard-haters would
also have been disappointed. The tone was generally detached,
scholarly, and respectful of Howard’s skills if not always of his
achievements.

Saturday’s session was open to the public, and in addition to
commentators such as Paul Kelly the speakers included two current
politicians: Labor MP Carmen Lawrence, and Liberal senator Russell
Trood.

Many will still ask “Russell who?” But as Malcolm Mackerras had
explained in a paper delivered on Friday, Trood is one of the most
important people in Canberra. Although he is less famous than his
National Party counterpart Barnaby Joyce, it was the fact that Trood
and Joyce were both elected – rather than, as most predicted, only one
of them – that gave the government its Senate majority.

Mackerras interprets Trood’s election as the result of a carefully
plotted strategy by the prime minister. My view was that it was the
by-product of a strategy designed by the Queensland Liberal Party to do
over the Nationals; Howard may have realised that Senate control was a
possibility as a result, but I don’t think he lost much sleep over it.

Trood, however, is a much more interesting person
than just a cog in the machine of Senate control. Before running for
parliament he was an associate professor in international relations at
Griffith University; he is highly qualified in foreign affairs,
specialising in the Asia-Pacific region, and also once worked for the
British Liberal Party (now the Liberal Democrats).

When Trood spoke, he did not disappoint. Speaking on “John Howard and
the World”, he gave a thoughtful summary of the current state of
Australia’s relations with Asia. Although he was not directly critical
of the government, the impression was of a genuinely independent thinker: he emphasised, for example, his strong support for the
International Criminal Court, a cause that Howard is known to be at
best lukewarm about.

Past experience suggests that independent thinkers are not the most
valued commodity in John Howard’s partyroom. He may or may not have
been keen to get Senate control, but he may well regret that it brought
him Barnaby Joyce and Russell Trood.

Peter Fray

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