Last Friday, Radio National‘s Fran Kelly uttered a political myth that regularly does the rounds and refuses to die, indeed it was the entire basis for the ABC series on the Howard years:

“John Howard almost lost the election in 1998 because of the GST.”

In fact, John Howard WON the election in 1998 because of the GST.

In 1998,  Howard’s Government was on the ropes. It was beset by corruption (five ministers lost in one year) , torn apart by how to handle Pauline Hanson and led by an unpopular leader.

It was only because it was in such trouble that it turned to the GST as a circuit breaker, a big idea to reset the agenda and it worked. In fact, there’s a good argument that had Howard not been in such trouble in 1998, the Government never would have risked the GST. (Take note, Kevin Rudd).

Consider the facts:

Howard launched the GST package on August 13, 1998.

Leading up to the launch Labor had opened up a pretty consistent lead in Newspoll:

Newspoll  June 26-28, 1998   LNP 34  ALP 45
Newspoll July10-12, 1998   LNP 37 ALP 40
Newspoll July 24-26, 1998   LNP 35 ALP 41
Newspoll August 7-9, 1998   LNP 39 ALP 39

The first poll after the GST package (August 14-16) had the coalition ahead 44-39! It was the first time the coalition had been ahead since May.

And, unpopular leader? It doesn’t fit the narrative of The Howard Years but Kim Beazley led John Howard as preferred PM through most of 1998 until Howard launched the GST. The poll following the GST launch was the first time Howard had led Beazley since May.

Just two months earlier, Newspoll had Howard’s approval rating at just 30, and his disapproval at 57. Again, after the GST, he turned this around 42-46.

The GST didn’t almost cost him the election — it gave him a cause to run on, made him look like a leader with an agenda, and prevented the poll being a referendum on Pauline Hanson and Howard’s  first-term record.

It was a classic example (to Howard’s credit) of a leader in trouble, seizing the agenda and making an important long-term reform, which built a platform for a lengthy stay in office.

The GST didn’t nearly cost John Howard the election, it’s the only reason he stayed in office after 1998.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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