It’s been 10 years since John Howard’s government was voted out of office by the Australian electorate and he lost his seat of Bennelong. Last night, he gave us more proof that former prime ministers, if they are not doing good works with the Brookings Institute, should probably just stay home and watch Veep.
Howard was being interviewed by journalist Paul Kelly about Donald Trump and the “challenges and opportunities facing the US-Australia relationship” at an event for the United States Studies Centre. The centre is releasing a report by research fellow Dougal Robinson called “Make it Personal: Trump, Congress and Australia’s Avenues of Influence”, on July 25, for which this was a curtain-raiser. Howard will always be popular with the body because he gave it $25 million seed funding in 2006, although it is now looking for further funding.
About 10 minutes into the interview, he told Kelly that he had “increasingly become more of a sceptic on climate change”, which made me want to throw my notebook on the floor and stomp out; if he’s going to say something so obviously stupid about this issue, why should we listen to his opinions on anything?
Howard, along with his mini-me, Tony Abbott, is the reason why we are international pariahs in the area of climate change, with an honourable mention to the Greens in 2009. If Bob Brown, applying the Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good rule, had voted with Labor for an emissions trading scheme in that year, it would have taken this political football out of play (and helped the planet). And doubling down on a dumb opinion is the mark of a wilful child, not a grown-up — what’s wrong with these people?
That remark came after Howard said that Europeans placed “a much higher premium on climate change than Americans”, adding that new French President Emmanuel Macron had blamed climate change for terrorism. (Wrong, in fact Macron had said, “I have tried to explain it to some: we can not pretend to fight terrorism effectively if we do not have a decisive action against climate warming or we will have to explain to people living in Chad, Niger and others that climate is not a problem.”)
We also discovered that the former PM didn’t like the Obama administration’s foreign policies, saying that they had led to a waning of American influence in global politics. “And we are paying the price for this in places such as the Ukraine … and the Middle East,” he said.
Which is a bit rich coming from the man who took us to war in Iraq over non-existent “weapons of mass disruption” and also told us that asylum seekers were deliberately throwing their children overboard (also false). No wonder a member of his own party, George Brandis, christened him either “the lying rodent” or simply “the rodent”, depending on which account you believe.
Howard told Kelly that Australia could trust Trump because his issues were just a matter of “style”.
“The style of President Trump is unusual … I accept that some of his style is provocative, but in the end it’s what he does that matters,” Howard said.
Which means that Howard thinks that the ongoing FBI investigation into Russia’s influence on the election, votes to repeal Obamacare, the firing of FBI director James Comey, revelations that Donald Trump Jr met with a Russian affiliate to get covert intelligence on Hillary Clinton and so on, are just matters of “style”. What would it take to get him alarmed — beating us at cricket?
“I do think there’s a rush to judgement on this bloke, on Trump, which is understandable because he’s so powerful … but we’ve got to be careful we don’t fall through the trap of rushing to judgement,” he said.
Turnbull had performed “very well” in his negotiations with Trump, Howard says.
“I think Malcolm Turnbull came out of the exchange over the Manus Island deal as somebody who was sticking up for Australian national interests and that’s what a prime minister should do,” Howard said.
“I give him 10 out of 10 for that.”
Asked by a member of the audience about Trump’s remarks about women and people of colour, Howard said that this “brusque, deal-making, locker-room style may not be the whole man,” adding that he was a bit of a “rough diamond”. “There is a lot about his character that we are yet to learn. But given his position and authority, we should not jump to hasty conclusions.”
When Howard was asked about the role of the media, he talked up the influence of talkback radio, whose audience is now back in nappies. That the former PM continues to champion the fortunes of a man like Alan Jones — who yesterday told New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian that her head was “in a noose” — is a disgrace.
Responding to a question from The Australian newspaper, Howard said that Australia should not leave the Paris Climate Accord because remaining in it was government policy and Turnbull had already said that Australia would stay. “It’s irrelevant what my view is.” (I’m with you there, John).
Asked about the Prime Minister’s speech to the Policy Exchange think tank this week in which he pointed out that Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies had not named it a “conservative party”, Howard said the party had always been the custodian of both the “classical liberal tradition and the conservative tradition”.
“Let me say that people in the country who regard themselves as conservatives — you are always welcome in the Liberal Party,’’ Howard said.
And, in an obvious smack-down to apostates like Cory Bernardi: “Don’t waste your time on alternative conservative iterations: they will only end in tears.’’
He then went off for drinks with the board of the USSC, which might be hoping that being nice to him might get them some more cash. Just don’t mention climate change.