PETER VAN ONSELEN
We need a John Howard comeback
Let’s not bury the lead: this opinion piece argues for a John Howard comeback, explaining how and why it’s a viable idea. Do I think it’s going to happen? Of course not. Is the piece a lighthearted game of fantasy football applied to the political class? Yes, it is. However, I’d invite readers to try to identify the downside to any of the implications that follow.
John Alexander looks certain to fall foul of section 44 of the Constitution, meaning a by-election in his northwest Sydney seat of Bennelong is in the offing. On a margin of less than 8 per cent in the present political climate, it will be a tough hold for the government. Lose the seat and Malcolm Turnbull loses his majority, and that’s before we even consider other potential by-elections that may ensue from the citizenship fiasco.
It has been speculated that Alexander may retire at the next election, which means he may be inclined not to recontest his seat at a by-election. Bennelong is Howard’s old seat. He lost it at the 2007 election, having represented the area for more than 30 years.
Fast forward 10 years and Australians more broadly lament the loss of good governance by all political parties since the end of the Howard era. It’s hard to imagine him losing the seat at a byelection, especially if the comeback were step one in a two-step process: a return to the prime ministership. Australians are crying out for stability in Canberra.
When Howard lost office the “it’s time” factor brought him down. His net satisfaction rating was still positive. (For context, Turnbull and Bill Shorten have ratings worse than minus 20.) The economy was humming along nicely. We were in surplus, with no net debt. The unemployment rate had a four in front of it and economic growth was strong.
In short, Australians felt comfortable moving on from Howard because they took prosperity for granted, but what we as a nation have experienced since then has been nothing short of chaotic. While events have contributed to the changed economic landscape, that doesn’t account for the political volatility in Canberra that has beset both major parties during their time in office. Howard was a safe pair of hands and even a new generation of voters would likely embrace him, having been told by older Australians how much more stable politics was under his watch.
Howard was the last quality leader following on a golden run from Bob Hawke to Paul Keating to Howard. He reformed the tax system, gun laws and industrial relations. Labor might try for an IR scare campaign but that would be a marginal concern paralleled with the positive offerings a Howard comeback would provide.
The simple fact is that even if ideological opponents of Howard would despise his return, swinging voters and traditional Liberals would embrace him en masse.
The elephant in the room is Howard’s age: he’s 78. While I’ve long argued that ageing MPs should be put out to pasture to be replaced by new blood, such reasoning doesn’t extend to leadership. We live in an ageing society. The retirement age is going up and Howard is certainly a young 78, as sharp and quick as he always has been. Politics is his passion. I bet if approached he’d be willing to again serve.
The transition would need to be on agreed terms. Resistance by Turnbull or anyone else would kill off this idea, for the same reasons the coup reactionaries keep spruiking isn’t viable. Does anyone think the lion’s share of the Liberal partyroom wouldn’t embrace a Howard comeback?
And who better to get rightwing conservatives under control? To placate right-wing shock jocks without giving in to their more populist demands? Howard would need to accept generational change in this country. He would need to understand his role wouldn’t be as a handbrake on progress, whatever his personal views. His comeback would be to take advantage of his competent management. Howard argued against same-sex marriage, for example, but he would need to embrace a plebiscite result that favoured changing the Marriage Act.
Turnbull and Peter Dutton are holding the line on Manus Island and New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 asylum-seekers. It’s worth reminding Australians that while Howard presided over the Tampa affair and the tough border policies that followed, he quietly settled most asylum-seekers here when the glare of the cameras receded. No one could call Howard a soft touch on border protection.
How would the frontbench be recalibrated? If Turnbull didn’t retire, he could take up the trea- surership, a role he’s perfectly suited to. If not, give it to Mathias Cormann. If anyone has the conservative credentials to break convention and make a senator treasurer, it’s Howard.
Move Morrison into social security or defence, and give him the leader of the house role to compensate for the lost Treasury portfolio. Leave Julie Bishop as foreign minister and party deputy. Leave Dutton in immigration, perhaps accelerating his move into the new homeland security super portfolio.
Bring Tony Abbott back on to the frontbench with indigenous affairs. Abbott has proven interest in the portfolio and Howard needs to show he takes such issues seriously. The internal wars within the Liberal Party would be over. How- ard could dump or politely retire MPs and senators he never much rated, thus freeing up positions and titles for new blood.
Promotions could include more women, such as Sarah Henderson and Melissa Price. Howard could use his authority to demand women replace outgoing MPs in parliament. To be sure Howard is no gender warrior, but female representation under his watch never dipped as low as it is now.
Howard is just one man so he would need to use his authority to help reform the party. This was a blind spot during his first stint as prime minister, but since retiring Howard has embraced the democratisation of the Liberal Party.
Does anyone seriously think Howard wouldn’t have Shorten’s number? He would immediately lift the credibility of the government, wouldn’t need to fear an early election in place of the drip feed of citizenship crisis induced by-election after by-election.
Problem states electorally such as Western Australia and Queensland would quickly rebound; Howard was popular in both. His home state, NSW, would see the Liberals re-energised in “Howard battler” outer metropolitan electorates such as Lindsay.
Robert Menzies served into his 70s as prime minister when Australians lived and worked for a shorter time than today. Britain re-elected Winston Churchill when he was one month shy of his 77th birthday, just a year younger than Howard is now. And that was 1951. Americans have a long and proud history of presidents and senators serving into their 70s.
It’s fantasy football to think about how improved this government would be were Howard to return to the leadership, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. It’s nigh impossible to think of a downside for the Liberal Party.
Peter van Onselen is a professor of politics at the University of Western Australia. He is coauthor of the bestselling book John Winston Howard: The Biography (MUP, 2007).