“The latest figures for attendance at non- government (private) schools are just one important illustration of the success of the Howard Government’s user-pay policies among Australian families.

More than 40 per cent of students now attend non- government high schools in 16 of Sydney’s 23 federal electorates.

Federally, 84 electorates have more students than average in private schools.

In NSW, Catholic schools now report record intakes.

The signs point to Prime Minister John Howard having another electoral victory some time in 2004 – it would be his fourth election win since 1996, making him Australia’s most successful conservative Prime Minister since Robert Menzies.

Flexibility and fluidity have always been important components in electoral success in Australia – and in the ability of Prime Ministers to retain office.

Two of Australia’s most successful Prime Ministers, Billy Hughes and Joe Lyons, were defectors from Labor while Labor was divided by ideological debate. Bob Hawke was also a pragmatist as Prime Minister.

Howard, like Hughes and Lyons before him, owes his years in office to a stand for uncomplicated principles, dear to the average Australian, mixed with a fair degree of pragmatism. Or, as Judith Brett puts it in Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class (Cambridge, 2003), his ability to adapt “the language and thinking carried in his party’s political traditions to the circumstances of his political present”.

Speaking at a political low point for the Liberal Party, in October 1991, the now Treasurer, Peter Costello, told the Sydney Institute that a future Coalition Government would lay down comprehensive policy settings, in keeping with the historical connections of non-Labor Prime Ministers such as Hughes, Lyons and Menzies.

“Political parties,” argued Costello, “are not, in my experience, primarily philosophic groups [yet] there are significant in-principle or philosophic differences between major Australian political parties, and those differences do influence the choice made by the electorate.”

After seven years of such policy settings, it is clear the Coalition has delivered the change Costello promised. It’s one Australians appear to have embraced to the dismay of the Labor Opposition.

In his 1991 speech, Costello said also, “Some principles are held more dear than others. Mostly they are applied in a flexible way. This is not a contemptible weakness. Political parties which are democratic must acknowledge and heed public opinion.” He also noted the relatively small number of times government has been won by oppositions in Australian history. And that, in most cases, such change came only when the party of government forfeited its claim to superior management of the economy and when the opposition could convince the electorate that it could do a better job and “articulate a coherent and attractive outline of the kind of society it wants”.

This is as true now as it was in 1991 – and should be a warning to the Labor Party where its tribal and ideological nature makes it hard to forgive a Labor “rat”.

From Labor’s point of view, Hughes and Lyons ratted on the party and took government away from it.

The truth is neither stole Labor’s right to rule. Rather, both former leaders felt what John Howard can feel today – the mainsteam hunger of middle Australia for what Brett defines as the three key social formations of Australian liberalism: “nation state, the family and the individual”. And, one could add, pragmatic solutions that deliver stable government and sound economic policy.

Catholic Joe Lyons, by defecting from Labor to the conservatives, brought an end to the ideological, and sectarian, politics of the 1920s – at the party level and also at the ballot box. The financial excesses of Labor, and in particular the Lang Labor group in NSW, worried not only Protestants but Catholics too.

The nation was seen to be under threat, not from an invading army but from financial collapse.

At the 1931 election, the Labor vote fell to 27 per cent from a 49 per cent first-preference vote in 1929. It was a wipe-out for Labor.

And much of that Catholic vote stayed with the conservatives and Lyons for three elections.

Through the 1930s, the image of Joe and Enid Lyons and their very large family in the Lodge was a unifying and comforting symbol for Australians – just as the Howard family at Kirribilli House, wedding and all, have become for average suburban Australians.

It is fashionable for those left of centre to bemoan the supposedly apathetic nature of politics under the present Howard administration. But it should be remembered that ideological politics have rarely been the tenor of successful administrations in Australia for most of its political history.

If Labor cannot find future policy settings that reflect Australians’ penchant for security, stability and prosperity, it will fail to win Government.”

Article published in The Canberra Times