ELECTED in a landslide, the new Howard government quickly set in place an administration that would define its character for over a decade. The message was direct and strong; Labor had squandered Australia’s good fortune, leaving a budget deficit for 1995-96 of $10billion (Kim Beazley’s “black hole”). Thrift and budget cuts would need to be the order of the day. Labor, recalling the Whitlam years, had once again shown it could not be trusted to handle taxpayers’ money.

A Howard Liberal government would be dedicated not only to a budget surplus but also to the philosophy of individualism; the nanny state would be wound back and, with the budget in surplus, taxpayers could eventually look forward to income tax cuts and bonuses as reward for a boom-time economy. This would be a government based on the best business practice. Economics, not empathy, was the new way forward.

The backdrop for this new national mood in favour of good old-fashioned efficiency and pragmatism, somewhat Calvinistic in its approach, was an upsurge of tedium, even anger, with the Keating years from late 1991, when high levels of unemployment remained and high interest rates still hurt family budgets. Many Australians saw immigration and immigrants as a threat to their jobs and their children’s future. At the same time, Prime Minister Paul Keating seemed more interested in a broader canvas, his big picture, tagged by the Opposition as elite issues, matters touching what many struggling Australians saw as minority causes rather than mainstream ones: reconciliation for Aborigines, multiculturalism, an Australian republic and extravagant gestures and offerings to the arts community.

By the time John Howard’s Liberals had won the 1996 election with a very small vista of election promises, some of which they would junk in government, Keating’s big picture had become its own negative as Howard and the Liberals taunted their opponents with claims that Keating had been pandering to elites with their political correctness and become a government out of touch with ordinary Australians.

In a hectic beginning, with electoral goodwill at their backs and to prune government spending, the new Howard government brought down a horror budget of cuts, acted on the findings of its National Commission of Audit to wind back government services in favour of the private sector (contracting out) and, with the appointment of hardliner Max Moore-Wilton as head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, overhauled the public service with the sacking of six heads of department and made it clear that tenure for departmental heads would be dependent on the satisfaction of the prime minister.

This firm centring of Howard as the driver of all policy and image for his government soon saw a hardening of tolerance for differing views in the partyroom. Howard had a sensitive antenna for the mood of his Howard battlers, those ordinary Australians who felt left behind by the Keating years. It seemed to party colleagues that Howard’s experience of Australia gave him a special understanding of the mood that had made him prime minister: Anglo, suburban-centric, middle class and domesticated. His wish to leave Australians “relaxed and comfortable” encompassed his pragmatic and material view of Australian life.

At first it was easy to go along with the flow; electoral success compensation enough. Philip Ruddock would make a quick reversal of character, going from human rights supporter as an Opposition MP to hardline advocate and enforcer of a tough mandatory detention policy on asylum-seekers and boatpeople. Staying on message with Howard was the only way to promotion or even notice. Christopher Pyne who, as a rookie Opposition MP on arriving in parliament in 1993, had told Howard to give it away, was not rewarded with a ministry until the last year of the Howard government, despite a strong performance for more than a decade. “While being a parliamentary secretary for three years was interesting, it was interesting in the way being governor of Syria in the Roman Empire was interesting: you wouldn’t knock it back, but you could think of postings to which you would rather be appointed,” Pyne says.

Liberal senator Marise Payne, a supporter of an Australian republic and strong on human rights, made her first speech in the Senate in September 1997. She recalls being pressured by various colleagues not to rock the boat in her speech: “People were making subtle and not so subtle remarks about what they worried I would speak on, indigenous Australians, Hanson politics. I was getting messages left, right and centre about what I shouldn’t say. I was being warned, effectively.”

Through time, some Liberal MPs noted how the need to toe the Howard line suffocated debate and fresh ideas. The small minority who might take a more sensitive, less pragmatic position on contentious issues such as indigenous affairs, boatpeople, Iraq and so on – MPs such as Judi Moylan and Bruce Baird – were labelled in the partyroom as soft, disloyal or predictably heart on the sleeve.

With this came the derisive term “doctors’ wives”, a reference to well-off Liberal voters, stereotyped as women (emotional and without economic credentials) at home in suburbia while a husband toiled in the professional world, people with enough money to afford a conscience. To pragmatic Liberals, the issues that concerned doctors’ wives (as a metaphor it also applied to many men) were simply a re-run of the Keating agenda. Howard loyalists remained confident, however, that the majority of hardworking and ordinary Australians preferred government to make the tough decisions needed for the nation’s economic and national security. At election after election, such loyalists were vindicated.

The Howard government could not understand the importance of symbolic politics beyond the symbols Howard himself held dear. Through the years, the symbols of security and traditional military heroes were often invoked: the Diggers of past wars, the Diggers of Iraq or Afghanistan protecting the nation from terrorism. Often it seemed as if the Howard government was a government on a war footing, holding the nation together under protective symbols and actions.

REFLECTING on the Rudd Government in March 2008, former minister Helen Coonan told me, “You can be as empathetic as you like, you can have any amount of listening tours and you can invite everyone to say something. The perception will be that you listen, but eventually you have to make a decision, a decision that might alienate half the people you’ve listened to.”

This is undoubtedly true. And, whatever its limitations, the strength of the Howard government was to get things done. Overwhelmingly, this was the key to its success after the Keating years of perceived malaise. As Howard put it, “Like me or loathe me, you know what I stand for.”

Another former minister, Joe Hockey, believes Howard’s success was his being predictable and stable. “He offered middle Australia the opportunity to get financial security and, after (the massacre at) Port Arthur, which had a huge impact, personal security.” Howard loyalist and former minister Tony Abbott saw the loss of the election in 2007 as a result of the government having achieved too much: “The road map, the agenda, if you like, that we came into government with in 1996 had almost been fully realised … there was a sense the government had run out of inspiration.”

From gun reform to the GST, from national security legislation to industrial relations reform, Howard and his team knew what they wanted to do and did it. And, for most of its time in office, the Howard government’s success relied heavily on being able to put offside only those voters whose vote it never hoped to get.

Various arguments have and will be offered for why the Liberals lost the 2007 election. There were many factors, some very similar to the reasons for Keating’s loss in 1996. For all that, the Howard era did see a recognised improvement in the material lives of ordinary Australians. When the figures settled, Howard’s record proved to be one of successful economic management.

In March 2008, just months after Rudd Labor had won the election with its multimillion-dollar campaign against Work Choices and claims that Howard had made the rich richer and the poor poorer, labour economist Mark Wooden produced the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey of 14,000 people. The survey showed that the lowest 10 per cent of income earners had gained increased incomes of 29per cent while those in the highest 10 per cent had fallen slightly, by 2.5 per cent.

Wooden added: “If you factor in non-cash benefits provided by the government, the figures would tilt even more in favour of the poor.”

In a country that does like to be relaxed and comfortable, just why was it Howard’s Liberals managed to throw away government? The answer is not hard to find. The problem for many Australians had become one of empathy and the Howard government’s inability to understand or appreciate the interests of Australians who could be described as different from the Howard-perceived mainstream. As Pyne had warned his colleagues, they would ignore the protests of so-called doctors’ wives at their peril.

While making himself something of a political legend in winning four successive elections as leader of the Liberal Party, Howard underestimated change in the electorate. By increasing the living standards of average Australians, Howard had added to the numbers of those capable of a doctors’ wives mindset, albeit at the same time as benefiting from the electorate’s feelings of national insecurity with terrorism after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 and the Islamic terrorist bombings in Bali in October 2002. Liberal hardliners such as Wilson Tuckey would continue to deride appeals for empathy and understanding from their more sensitive colleagues over the plight of those at the margin of society and outsiders such as refugees and people who continued to fall through gaps.

But, as ordinary Australians gained financial confidence, many of them could afford a conscience. And it was these voters who began to empathise with those they saw threatened or less fortunate as they found an appetite for policy beyond the delivery of their own material wellbeing.

As Abbott describes it, “All the things we fretted about 10 years ago, like unemployment, the collapse of traditional industries, multiculturalism, immigration, we had moved on from, partly because government policy had changed things in ways that made people feel better. These were not a problem any more. But this means that other issues come up for people to be less contented about.”

Indeed, as if to make this obvious, by the time Howard lost the 2007 election Australia’s intake of immigrants was at an all-time high.

However, it would not be refugees or marginalised outsiders who would initially prick Australian consciences in this value driven sea change. Instead it was the plight of a deported Australian citizen (Vivian Alvarez Solon) and the shocking treatment in detention of an Australian resident of European background (Cornelia Rau). These national scandals in 2005 shook the Howard government into action over the bleeding sore on the national psyche of mandatory detention.

For those who had scoffed at the doctors’ wives, accusing them of exaggerating the conditions of mandatory detention, suddenly the reality showed much of the criticism had been understated.

Then, within a year, came the introduction of Work Choices, put into law by a government-controlled Senate in 2006: the Howard government’s overhaul of industrial relations. This finally gave the Opposition a lasting moment of traction against the superiority of the Howard government.

With the government boasting of budget surpluses while continuing to call for moderation in its spending, young people and workers on Australian Workplace Agreements could be forced into negotiations with employers as to the nature of their employment conditions. Studies since have showed that Work Choices was in fact the start of an employment surge in retailing, restaurants and other such casual and full-time jobs, an employment boom to die for. But, in the propaganda stakes, the Howard government’s pragmatic and economic revolution was lost in a wave of feeling that Australian workers were being cheated. An advertising tsunami against the Howard government’s Work Choices legislation, backed by lucrative trade union funds, painted an image of the government as mean and tricky, an image reinforced by years of government sophistry.

As people began to doubt the justice of the government’s new industrial relations legislation, many Liberal MPs spoke of being approached by people in their electorates, people who disagreed with the legislation not for what it meant to them so much as how it might affect their children or grandchildren. The objections to Work Choices became a protest largely out of empathy


Suddenly, earlier campaigns against the Howard government had meaning for ordinary Australians: mandatory detention of children, the cry of “children overboard” (where Howard had believed, wrongly, that refugee boatpeople from the Middle East would throw their children overboard to gain entry to Australia) and Aboriginal reconciliation. What had happened to others could happen to their children or grandchildren with a mean-spirited government.

Mandatory detention of boatpeople had not stirred a majority of Australians for decades: the policy had been introduced by the Keating government. Unlawfuls (often referred to as illegals) were queue jumpers. But in the last years of the Howard government, it was an Australian detainee, David Hicks, incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba as a terrorist supporter, who attracted the sympathy of many Australians. Denial of justice and mandatory detention finally had meaning for average Australians; one of their own had waited long years for release from a US military prison, a prison increasingly stereotyped in the media as a gulag of horrors.

The image that best represented Hicks, in the media, was his father Terry Hicks, an Aussie dad from Adelaide pleading for his son’s release, the image of an Australian parent, decent and hardworking, begging for a fair go for a son who had been enticed in the wrong direction.

As Coonan puts it: “(David Hicks’s) dad stood there and told it like it was. He usually didn’t overstate it. There was an identification with a parent who could be any parent, any one of us, who could have a misguided child and face a government, as it was put to me, who appeared not to even take the basic steps to see that justice was done.

“It didn’t come up in the election; when Hicks was released it was away overnight. But it fed into a perception that we lacked compassion. Like multiculturalism, some of our reactions toterrorism, security legislation and not signing Kyoto.” This was undoubtedly true and a reaction encouraged by a decade’s experience of a government with form in its lack of compassion.

In March 2008, former Queensland Labor senator John Black released the findings of his demographic research and marketing group, Australian Development Strategies, on voting profiles for the 2007 federal election. According to Black, where former Howard battlers overlapped with churchgoers, the Liberals were big losers. The most significant seats that fell to Labor from this were Queensland seats in Kevin Rudd’s home state.

Ironically, it was the Howard government’s lack of empathy with its own that began to erode its support. Issues, beyond material comfort and the economy, had begun to affect middle Australians. Climate change, with former US vice-president Al Gore’s doomsday film An Inconvenient Truth and a back-on-back Australia-wide drought, pricked Australian consciences about global warming and saving the planet. Howard was a climate change sceptic and, while Australia had met all its Kyoto targets, it had refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. As former minister Malcolm Turnbull explained to me, “The fact that we didn’t ratify Kyoto was interpreted by a lot of people as meaning we were blind to the serious dangers confronting us in the future which would impact on our children.” Many of his constituents, though, had queried why the Liberal government was happy to take political pain for not ratifying Kyoto when Australia was meeting its targets anyway.

Hugh MacKay, from research for his book Advance Australia Where?, offered a picture of an Australia very much changed from 1996. Howard battlers were no longer battling. In fact, among most there appeared to be an optimistic outlook about job prospects. There had been an increase, in three decades, of women aged 45-54 in the workforce, up from 52 per cent to 76 per cent.

But, at the same time, there had also been an upsurge in employees who felt they were “profit fodder”. In February 2007, Howard had celebrated the fact that the number of owner-managers exceeded the number of trade union members, but an Australian Bureau of Statistics survey in May that year showed that 37 per cent of employees worked overtime and half of them received no extra pay for doing so. All of this reflected an upheaval in Australian workplace traditions and a backdrop for new dissatisfactions.

As much history has demonstrated, revolutions do not occur when the downtrodden are in chains. Mood for dramatic change is likelier to happen with a financially liberated class – let’s say an enhanced middle (read ordinary Australian) class – as it opts to push over an intransigent conservative ruling elite. By late 2006, Howard had become that elite, an elite that had no room for emotion. Yet, in an eleventh-hour attempt to put his government on an empathetic footing, Howard gave his October 2007 speech to the Sydney Institute on a “new reconciliation” for Australia with its indigenous citizens. In this speech, Howard came as close as he ever would to a Catholic confession of guilt over his relations with Australian Aborigines. But, as Coonan and many of her colleagues would say afterwards, it was all too late.

“We hit them (the electorate) three ways,” says Hockey, Liberal MP for North Sydney. “We hit those families, particularly the single mums, with the child support changes that came into effect on July 1, 2008, which is basically a reduction in the money to be paid by the father. It’s terrible and I fought against that. Welfare to work was the right thing to do but it was severely affected by the timing. And the third issue was Work Choices. The ads were deceitful but it didn’t matter.”

Hockey also believes, like many other Coalition MPs, that Howard erred in not making an apology long before to indigenous Australians. “He got it wrong and he knew he got it wrong,” says Hockey on Howard’s last-minute attempt to play catch-up in his Sydney Institute speech. “Not even Mal Brough (minister for indigenous affairs) knew about that speech. It was a desperate attempt to correct history.”

Abbott conceded to me, talking of the Liberal Party, that “as a political movement we are thought to have a good head but a suspect heart”. Turnbull, also a Catholic, looked at the failure to say sorry another way. He recalled using the story of the then pope John Paul II going to Athens in 2001 and apologising for the crimes the Catholic Church had done to the Greek Orthodox Church over the centuries. “Do any of the parishioners of Mary Magdalene Parish in Rose Bay feel they are jointly and separately liable for the sacking of Constantinople? Of course they don’t.” Turnbull then went on to explain to his party colleagues John Paul’s phrase “the purification of memory”, where the first step was to acknowledge what really happened.

Perhaps the increasing sentiment that an apology was needed helped Howard in his last months in office to come to an acceptance that his semantics and rather Calvinistic lack of understanding over apologising to the Stolen Generations had been a blindness. And hence his attempt to inch his way forward at the last minute in his October speech. By then, however, it was all too late. It would be left to the Rudd Government in its first months in office to say sorry to Australia’s indigenous people, allowing an outpouring of national feeling and empathy to saturate media, homes and institutions for days. Howard had ignored the doctors’ wives at his peril.

Article published in Weekend Australian