The Howard Years is an illustration of the problems of history-telling. It covers many of the events of the day, and much is interesting, but it is let down by a lousy theme. That theme is: John Howard the “conviction politician”, elected in 1996 with, in the words of narrator Fran Kelly, a “mission to recast Australia”.

Leaving aside the validity of the “conviction politician” label, the fact is that this perception of Howard only came about at the 2001 “Tampa” election. Before then his leadership could be characterised as about anything but “conviction” Kelly and crew apply it retrospectively.

A rummage through the newspapers of that first term should remind anyone. Here, for example, is conservative commentator Michael Duffy urging a vote for Howard in the Daily Telegraph before the 1998 election:

Howard does not seem to have leadership qualities. He lacks the ability to inspire … He simply doesn’t rise well to some of the challenges of leadership.

(But vote for him anyway, wrote Duffy, because Kim Beazley is even worse.)

Squeezing that first term, 1996-8, into a “man of steel” package made for odd television. We heard a lot from staffer Graham Morris: his boss always did what was right and bugger the political consequences. The reaction to Port Arthur was an example of this.

In reality, of course, political considerations played a large part in those gun laws.

The series has Howard almost losing the 1998 election because of all the controversial “conviction” reforms he had put in place. Again the opposite of the truth: rather like Kevin Rudd today, Howard had disowned so much of his and his party’s past positions before the election — on Medicare, immigration and general fiscal matters — that once elected he found he had little room to move.

It was the perception of a lack of agenda that led to the GST “adventure”.

Unless I blinked, there was no mention of the record number of ministerial resignations, the perception of administrative incompetence. Where was the .. torpor that characterised that first term to such an extent that, for example, Max Walsh wrote in the SMH in late 1997 that ‘the odds are against John Howard leading the Government to the next election’?

Making a series like this would be extremely difficult, and in squeezing several years into one hour it is not possible to do justice to everything. Yes, divided Liberal opinion was shown on Howard’s response to Pauline Hanson, and possible government sneakiness was implied in the waterfront dispute. (Peter Reith: never play poker.)

But overall, we saw a bunch of politicians and staffers, very on message, attempting to write history, and the film-makers generally obliging.

You can’t please everyone with a show like this. But they could have spread the pleasing around more.

I kept asking myself last night: was “Labor in Power” like this? Did it allow the story to be dictated by the players?

The Hawke-Keating split provided spark and dissent and correctives. But I’m sure those producers 15 years ago also cast a more critical eye.

Or maybe my memory is faulty too.

Peter Fray

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