John Howard took almost two decades from 1977 to 1996 to become John Howard. During that time, he was a treasurer easily pushed around by the bullying Malcolm Fraser, forced to break promises and roll out truly unpopular plans like one to tax paper boys.
He was one half of an internecine political war with Andrew Peacock, the great wets-versus-drys battle of the 1980s. Howard danced with anti-Asian populism and was outfoxed by Queensland’s Joh Bjelke-Petersen in a conservative disaster that gave Bob Hawke a relatively easy third election victory.
After being humiliated on the front page of The Bulletin (a headline reading “Mr 18 per cent. Why does this man bother?”), Howard appeared to give up his unwavering ambition. A comeback would be “Lazarus with a triple bypass” he said famously.
However, against all these odds, Howard was back as Liberal leader. He had, in the words of Laurie Oakes, made every political mistake in the book, but he only ever made them once. At the 1996 election, Howard crushed Labor’s Paul Keating in one of the great conservative victories, and went on to win the next three national contests, making him second only to his hero Bob Menzies in terms of leadership longevity.
Today, Howard is a conservative elder statesman. He gives supportive advice to the Liberal Party and its leadership, and some gentle guidance when he feels it is needed.
Howard has also become the man in whose image current prime minister and Liberal leader Scott Morrison is being framed. The trouble is this is just another piece of political marketing — i.e. Morrison’s single tactical skill.
Morrison came to prominence as the Tourism Australia chief who devised the forgettable “Where the bloody hell are you?” campaign, which did no more than introduce the public to the advertising model Lara Bingle, the star of a $180 million sales pitch, following which visitor numbers from target countries — the United Kingdom, Japan and Germany — fell by up to 5.7%.
Now, after a clever election campaign in which Morrison turned the fortunes of the Liberal Party around from being a hopeless, divided rabble to a focused machine that attacked the weaknesses of Bill Shorten’s Labor Party and prevailed in a contest that looked beyond reach.
Since Morrison and his relieved Coalition MPs were returned to the government benches, government activity has been on autopilot with the single, significant achievement being the passage of tax cuts first proposed when Malcolm Turnbull was prime minister.
In an insult to Howard, we’re now being told Morrison is Howard 2.0, some 2019 version of the Liberal Party’s most significant figure in the modern era.
Let’s examine some of what Howard would call “field evidence” for this thesis that’s heavily briefed to the favourite scribes of Morrison’s office.
Howard was a politician with a set of genuine values, unafraid to argue for them, even when he was taking on his own side — this was seen most markedly in his instinctive reform of gun laws. Any solely populist leader would have dropped the GST-based tax reform package in the 1998-2000 period.
Howard also championed labour market deregulation, which he pushed right up to when he gave himself too much rope after winning control of the Senate in 2004.
You could not fault him for serious conservative determination on native title (he was booed at a speech to an Indigenous audience following his 1996 win) or his steely, give-no-quarter approach to asylum seekers (seen most dramatically when the MV Tampa sailed over the horizon in 2001).
Throughout his time at the top, Howard never stopped arguing for his agenda, as well as taking the battle up to his opponents. He seldom lost sight of his maxim that reform was achieved by moving when you had the public with you.
Morrison by contrast has shown none of this courage or vision. There’s no sign of a substantial set of political and personal values. We know he’s a committed man of faith who loves his family, his adopted home of Cronulla Shire, and being prime minister.
As we’ve seen this week, his agenda is seriously small bore. He wants to drug test dole recipients for the most marginal of returns, push mandatory sentences and roll into state jurisdictions with cost free support for taking on militant vegan farm invaders.
Each of these “agenda items” have as a priority wedging the Labor opposition.
This is not the “new John Howard”. It’s not even Howard-light. To say Morrison is the new Howard is like saying a Beatles cover band at the local pub is equal to the Fab Four.
Do you think Morrison has got what it takes to be the John Howard redux? Write to [email protected] and let us know.
Dennis Atkins is a freelance writer based in Brisbane where he was a national political editor during the Howard government. He is filling in for part of the time while Bernard Keane is enjoying a break.