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).

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