The  Art  of  Coalition: The Howard Government Experience, 1996-2007

By David W. Lovell and Andrew Blyth 

UNSW Press.  2022

ISBN: ISBN : 9781742237626

RRP: $39.99 (pb)

Reviewed by Paul Henderson


The Art of Coalition has two overall editors for the whole book, as well as others who have contributed to a number of chapters, which cover different aspects of the topics raised in the book. Some of the authors were/are associated closely with John Howard. Although the non-Labor political parties frequently changed their name over the decades, the terms generally referred to in the non-Labor ranks are National Party and Liberal Party. Most of the chapters are about events from 1996 to 2007, but there are explanations of things that happened going back as far as the 1920s.

The authors explain carefully why the National and Liberal parties have, generally, enjoyed being in a coalition. The writers, in their different ways, cover how this has occurred with so much success as a Coalition. For example, David Lovell says that “… egos and ambitions were put aside for the benefit of unity.” Stanley Bruce and Earle Page, although from different parties, had agreed to a coalition as early as the 1920s. The Coalition is still extant today.

In the book there is a great deal of admiration for John Howard. Tony Abbott described him as one of our greatest ever. This is not surprising since he won three elections and stayed a very long time as Prime Minister. His success was due to his “close relations with the National Party,” wrote Joel Fitzgibbon.  After John Howard had lost an election before later becoming Prime Minister in 1996, he always believed he had Paul Keating’s measure. He had won what was called the votes of “Howard’s battlers.” It is a tribute to him that two authors included his name in their chapter headings.

The Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania should be well remembered by many readers and the part played by Howard after the tragedy. Understandably, this event had a profound effect on the community.

Howard and National Party leader Tim Fischer felt very strongly that certain types of guns should be handed in. However, some National Party members and voters – such as farmers and hunters and rural people in general – were wary of this action. There was considerable concern among the Queensland and Western Australian residents. Although it took a long time, with careful negotiations, Howard and Fischer won the day. It is a very good example of the art and the success of having a Coalition.

It is true to say that there were many occasions when the Coalition worked extremely well together. However, between them, the authors also examine some of the differences, arguments and squabbles between the two parties. The one event which these authors most frequently mention is how much damage was done by Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the leader of the National Party in Queensland.  In April 1987, Bjelke-Petersen decided to run for prime minister.  Both the Liberal and National Parties were shaken. Looking back, Howard opined that Bjelke-Petersen’s decision had “ramifications that haunted the National and Liberal parties for some years.” The Queensland premier later withdrew his plan. The book explains carefully the causes and results for this event.

After the death of Harold Holt in December 1967, the next person in line to become the prime minister was the Liberal member, Billy McMahon. John McEwen, the National Party leader, said if this happened the party would break off the Coalition. McEwen won and McMahon did not become the next PM after Holt. This indicates the power the Nationals had, if they wanted to use it.

Over the decades several leaders of the two parties got on very well together and sometimes for a long time. For example, Malcolm Fraser and Doug Anthony over a period of time worked well together. Howard got on with all the National Party leaders. Others got on well enough, but not closely. This would include Robert Menzies and Earle Page. Some ministers found John McEwen difficult to deal with.

Although there were a few doubters, most members of the Coalition saw the advantages of the party structure. Even when the Liberals could have governed without the Nationals, they chose not to do so – as later they might need each other.  People, such as Peter Nixon, a leading Victorian member in the National Party, wrote a paper to support this structure. After his retirement, Menzies said one of his greatest achievements was to have a constant alliance with the Nationals. Howard would agree. These were two of the Liberal Party’s greatest leaders.

The Coalition was more than “a marriage of convenience” writes Scott Prasser. He goes on to say that the two parties liked being in power, enjoying the perks of office and keeping out their opponents.

John Howard and former National Party leader John Anderson were interviewed for the section of the book entitled “Portfolio Distribution”. It was an innovative way of finding out how the system of selecting ministers actually works. It was interesting to read how ministers are chosen and what portfolio is given to them.  Some people were immediately made ministers and automatically given their choice of position. For example, Peter Costello as Treasurer.

In placing ministers, the two former party leaders interviewed spoke of having to balance things up such as states, gender, which house of parliament the person belonged to and so on. This also included experience, rural versus regional, factions in each party were other factors. Not everyone would be pleased, but the system worked well. There could be tensions about the allocation and the number of staff each minister might have. The Nationals frequently wanted more ministers, but against this they were allocated the lucrative position of Deputy Prime Minister. Readers will find this section interesting.

The Art Of Coalition is a good book, with plenty of material, which is well researched. Choosing this topic for a book was innovative. The only misgiving is why there were a number of pages are covered with the details of the election results. This occurred from pages 68 to 80. It would have been better to have placed much of this detail in an index. All the authors handled their topics well. The book was interesting, readable and carefully put together.

Paul Henderson is the author of several books on Australian history and politics.