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This week sees the Mildura Weekly continue its ‘A moment with’ series written by JOHN DOOLEY. Here, we bring you part one of an interview with former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, which was conducted a week after former PM Malcolm Turnbull was replaced by Scott Morrison in the nation’s top job.

 

GIVEN the events of recent years, and the despatching of yet another sitting Prime Minister just a few weeks ago, many may wish that they could wave a magic wand and return to the stable, secure days of the Howard era.

Former Prime Minister John Howard was in office for more than 11 years – almost a lifetime in today’s climate – with the country seeing a revolving door of leaders since Mr Howard’s defeat at the hands of former PM Kevin Rudd in 2007.

I met up with the former PM in his office overlooking Sydney on the day he was to deliver a speech for the Tom Hughes Oration – an event that honoured the life and career of the eminent QC and former Attorney-General in John Gorton’s government, and the father-in-law of the recently deposed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Commenting a few days after the ousting of Mr Turnbull as Liberal Party leader, Mr Howard said that, in blunt terms, it had occurred because he had lost control of his parliamentary party.

“Parties change leaders because they believe the change will deliver political advantage, and I have been through this – I’ve been both a victim in opposition and a beneficiary of leadership changes – and the ultimate reason why a party changes leader, despite all the talk to the contrary, is that the party makes a judgement that it will do better with a change,” he said.

“I’m not saying that I either endorse that in relation to Malcolm Turnbull or dismiss it, I just make the observation that in all the commentary that has followed the change I think the point that is often overlooked is that the driving force behind a change is the belief that the change will deliver political advantage.

“Now you can think that is a lousy judgement, and it may turn out to be a lousy judgment, but that’s the reason.

“It’s the reason why Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott, and it was the reason, in the end, despite the fact that he’d been the longest-serving, and in my view, the best Labor Prime Minister Australia has had, why Bob Hawke was replaced by Paul Keating.”

Liberal Party Federal president, and former Premier of NSW, Nick Greiner, has called for the Party to examine the option for a change to the rules in regard to how leaders are chosen, just as Labor did after the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era, whereby the rank and file members have a 50 percent say on who the leader of the party is.

It’s something the former PM won’t have a bar of.

“I totally disagree with Nick on this, I wouldn’t change the rules at all,” Mr Howard said. “The problem is the people, not the rules, and the Liberal Party should never reach out to more regulation to solve a problem, it should in fact embrace less regulation.

“What everybody is forgetting is that the job of the leader is to lead the members of the parliamentary party, and the most important responsibility that a PM or an Opposition Leader has.”

Mr Howard encountered the exact opposite situation, in that the great majority of the party room always wanted him to stay, with the exception of Peter Costello, who, despite claiming there was an agreement (the so-called Kirribilli agreement) between himself and Mr Howard for the PM to step down in office, never actually brought on a challenge.

This was no doubt because Mr Costello knew that he didn’t have the numbers to topple the PM, but more likely because the notion of rolling a sitting Liberal Prime Minister was unconscionable at the time.

Ultimately, the voters decided John Howard’s fate at the ballot box in the 2007 election.

Mr Howard said he hoped the parliamentary party settles down and works hard to support the new PM. 

“I think Scott has got off to a good start and we’ll just wait and see,” he said. “There are words and there are deeds, and so we have to wait and see – we need some deeds as well as the words – the words are good, but they have to be matched by actions.

“I don’t find as I move around the community on a regular basis that there is an appetite or a lot of enthusiasm for Bill Shorten, and so 

I think we can still get back in the game, but we have given the others quite a head start.”

John Winston Howard was born in July 1939, barely two months before Robert Menzies famously announced in a radio address to the nation that Australia “was now at war with Germany”.

Menzies would go on to become Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, having been in that role on two occasions, from 1939 to 1941, and again from 1949 to 1966 – over 18 years in total. 

Decades later Mr Howard would follow in his footsteps to hold the title of the country’s second longest-serving Prime Minister, having held the office for over 11 years.

“I realised quite early in life, from the age of 11 or 12, that I had an intense interest in politics. I can’t really plot the point at which I felt I would try and get into Parliament, but it would have probably been in my late teens to early 20s,” he said.

“I wanted to establish a career in something else before I entered politics. I have a very strong view that we shouldn’t have too many people in Parliament who have only ever worked in a political environment – they have an unreal view of things and tend to see politics as a game, rather than a serious calling.”

On Malcolm Fraser

In his book ‘Lazarus Rising’, Mr Howard referred to his relationship with another long-serving former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, with whom he had served as Treasurer. 

“It deteriorated after I became Prime Minister – he took exception to some of the ways and methods in which I responded to certain issues,” he said. “Malcolm was very critical about the way I dealt with One Nation for example. 

“In a way, only he could answer the question as to why, because I didn’t seek to distance myself from him, but he became very distant from the Liberal Party in the last years of his life, and he eventually resigned from the Party.”

Mr Howard witnessed the rise of Pauline Hanson’s ‘One Nation’, and I asked how he would deal with them today.

“Well, One Nation represents an attitude that is always going to be there. People who feel that they have missed out on life in different ways – most of them, but not all of them, would see the Liberal Party or National Party as their normal political home,” he said.

“However, for a combination of reasons – unhappy with either party, depending in what part of the country they live in, they were attracted to them.

“I think it’s possible to bring people back from One Nation, but you have to understand why people have left – withdrawn their support from the Coalition, and it varies a bit according to where you live – there is no one simple solution.

“People who run around saying you have to do this or that, it’s not quite as easy as that. It’s a question of understanding the thinking of those people and you can’t always anticipate that.

“Whether it’s One Nation, the Australian Conservatives, The Katter Party or others, they have all contributed to the fragmentation of the middle ground which has affected both sides of politics – the swinging voters often referred to as the ‘fertile ground’ is harder to capture.”

Sir Robert Menzies established the Liberal Party as a party for the middle class, Mr Howard capitalised on this, which was particularly borne out in the outer western Sydney seat of Lindsay that was snatched from Labor in 1996 by former RAAF Legal Officer and Squadron Leader, Jackie Howard, wooing voters who would become known as (John) ‘Howard’s Battlers’.

“Australia has a very big middle class and most people either see themselves as middle class or want to be middle class, people don’t revel in the description of working class any more, most people want to be middle class,” Mr Howard said.

Making no apology

In a change of subject, the former PM makes no apology for his stance on the ‘National Apology’, something during his time as Prime Minister he was consistent with, and a position which drew sharp criticism from the Indigenous community and some political opponents.

“Yes it was consistent. The report on which the request for the Apology was based was flawed, and I consistently took the view that presuming to apologise on behalf of an earlier generation and for something that I didn’t accept was something I couldn’t do,” he said.

“I certainly accept there were many forced removals and lots of mistakes were made, but I also accept that some people, as Noel Pearson said, benefitted from it, and so the argument that the policies amounted to genocide, was false. 

“Therefore I didn’t give an apology, and when it was delivered by my successor (Kevin Rudd) I was invited to attend the ceremony in Parliament House, but I declined – not out of disrespect to Aboriginal Australians, but because I didn’t want to be seen as a hypocrite.

“I would be in favour of some acknowledgement in the Constitution of the undeniable fact that the Indigenous people were here first, because it’s true. But I’m not in favour of going beyond that, and I doubt very much that the Australian people would vote for an amendment to the Constitution that goes beyond that.

“I certainly would oppose it, and I think many millions of Australians would.”

Mr Howard said we should get away from an argument on symbolism and do something about including Indigenous people into the main stream of the community.

“They have an absolute right to share in the bounty and the wealth and good fortune of Australia, and where they are missing out, they should be helped,” he said. “But we spend too much time arguing about what ought to go in the Constitution or playing with names.

“I notice now they’re talking about ‘first nation’ – well there wasn’t a collection of nations in the proper sense of the word as we understand it when the British came here, there were Indigenous groups and the structure was different.

“What we should focus on is lifting Indigenous employment levels, school retention, tertiary education opportunities, and we should make sure that children in dysfunctional communities are properly protected.

“I think what’s happened in some parts of the Northern Territory is sickening, and most Australians feel the same way. That’s a hard thing to solve – it’s easy to call for Constitutional recognition.”

In a time when political correctness and identity politics are pervading society, the former PM also had some strong views.

“My position on this is very well-known – it’s language madness – telling people not to talk about husbands and wives and other such things. I just hope in the fullness of time that the new Prime Minister just calls it out,” he said.

Public irritation

“The public expects their leaders to speak for them, and there is too much of it, and the average person is irritated by it and looks for a lead.”

In regard to the curtailment of free speech, Mr Howard’s view is equally determined.

“18C’s menace was exposed in the Andrew Bolt case (in September 2011, Justice Mordecai Bromberg found Journalist Andrew Bolt to have contravened section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act), and once the court ruled as it did, it became necessary in my opinion in the interest of free speech to get rid of it, and I was sorry that Tony Abbott abandoned that attempt, and I hope that sometime in the future there is another attempt made to amend it,” he said.

On the subject of Australia becoming a republic, the former PM, who strongly supported the ‘no case’, maintains the move is not inevitable 

“No I don’t think anything is inevitable except death and taxation as Benjamin Franklin once famously said,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any desire at the moment apart from the ‘zealots’ to make Australia a republic, and the regard in which the Queen is held right across the political divide is even stronger now than it was 20 years ago. 

“More than anything else people think the present system we have is unstable enough on occasions, so I don’t think they want to risk altering it fundamentally to produce something that’s even more unstable.

“But, I could be wrong and it doesn’t mean to say it won’t happen.”      

Ironically, it was Malcolm Turnbull who was the most vocal supporter of the nation becoming a Republic at the time, going as far as to famously state that John Howard was the Prime Minister who “broke a nation’s heart” after the yes case lost in the 1999 referendum.