Australians are grumpy about John Howard’s handling of health. They are unsure of education. They oppose the war on Iraq and are wary of IR changes. And yet … they like the Prime Minister. It seems that if the economy’s good, Australians are willing to forgive almost anything, writes Karen Kissane.
JOHN Howard has won some and lost some in the 10 years he has been prime minister.
He has won Robert Hancock, 44, a father of two from Wangaratta who did not vote for him in 1996 but has become a convert.”
He’s a pretty solid PM – pretty honest,” says Hancock. “The way he gets a handle on the economy is the best thing he does. You don’t have high inflation and rates going through the roof.”
Hancock, who manages a printing company, has been won over by the continued economic prosperity: “It all gets back to quality of life.”
But Bruce Denton has shifted in the opposite direction. He helped vote Howard into power in 1996 but now, “I hate him. I feel like throwing a shoe when I see him on TV.”
Denton has never forgiven the Prime Minister for reneging on his promise not to introduce the GST, and he blames the atmosphere created by the Government’s new industrial laws for his unemployment.
The contract sign fitter worked for the same employer for nine years.”
These industrial relations things – I threw my job in and I blame him because the place I worked for wanted to cut my rates by 10 per cent. And I’ve done a stupid thing because now I am out of work and I’m 63 years old and who’s going to employ me?” There is a political lesson in these stories. As former prime minister Paul Keating discovered when interest rates skyrocketed, voters are unforgiving of leaders who are seen to have damaged their economic position. Conversely, it seems that a prime minister who is seen as keeping the economy ticking over has little to fear, whatever his perceived failings.
Howard has turned into the man we love to be in two minds about.
Ten years into his reign, he is seen by most Australians as providing strong leadership in uncertain times and as “bringing home the bacon” – a glowing 83 per cent of voters who rated the economy as the main issue believe he has managed the economy well or quite well.
Hancock, who was polled by The Age, is one of the 46 per cent who believe they are better off under the Howard Government.
Many are not so happy with other areas of his stewardship. They think Australia is now a less fair society, they question the PM’s honesty, and they see him as a divisive leader who wrongly took Australia to war in Iraq. Howard is also seen to have done poorly on health and education.
For most voters, however, these misgivings do not translate into wanting to give him the boot.
Ed Hallett, of Elwood, is a 26-year-old who works in IT and studies part-time at university.
He admires Howard’s ability to take a tough stand in the face of opposition, as well as his economic management and the place he has carved out for himself on the world stage.”
The Australian dollar has gone up and the national debt has gone down and, overseas, people know who he is,” he says.”
I have travelled through Europe and Asia and the US and, before, most people didn’t even know where Australia was, but they now know who this short little prime minister is who runs around the world all the time.”
Social researcher Hugh Mackay says Howard “is the most complex politician I have ever studied. There are so many contradictions. He does not have a simple kind of profile – it runs the full spectrum from high respect to deep loathing.”
And most responses are mixed: voters who like him confess to reservations, and voters who dislike him acknowledge they also have a reluctant respect for him.”
According to his former chief of staff, Grahame Morris, Howard has a gift for divining the views of middle Australia, to the point where, when he holds to a view that is clearly unpopular, “voters think, `You’re wrong, tiger, but we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.’” Across a broad range of voters, Howard is seen as reassuringly solid and reliable, a known quantity. Says Mackay: “He enjoys increasing respect without much affection. A lot of the respect is almost grudging; people finally have to admit that he’s a stayer, that his big characteristic is a combination of persistence and political skill.”
Howard is a politician whose popularity has swung wildly over the years but whose tenure as prime minister has seen him grow in stature.”
In the mid-80s, you couldn’t give him away,” says Morris. But in March 1996, Australians decided that they preferred him to what they saw as an arrogant, out-of-touch Paul Keating.
Morris says polling then showed that voters “thought of him as `Uncle John’ and liked his values”.
In his decade as PM, Howard’s popularity has often spiked following tragedies of historic proportions.
In 1996, his tough stance on gun control following the Port Arthur massacre helped turn him, according to one poll, into the most popular leader in a decade.
He won an almost unwinnable election in 2001 with his response to the September 11 terrorist attacks and his handling of the asylum seekers on the Tampa, which convinced many people who would otherwise have been Labor voters that he would protect the nation against “illegal immigrants”.
Australians also admired him for sending troops to East Timor in 1999, and for his tough and eloquent responses to the first Bali bombing in 2002, when he passed emergency laws to enable the arrest of al-Qaeda sympathisers and spoke of the need to “wrap our arms around not only our fellow Australians, but ¿ the people of Indonesia”.
Voters like him less when the statesman is seen as giving way to the politician. His personal standing crashed in February 2002 when more than half the electorate believed he had intentionally misled them over the “children overboard” affair.
They were more forgiving over Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction, with 70 per cent believing either that he told the truth about the reasons for going to war or unintentionally gave the wrong reasons.
His approval nosedived again last November, following unpopular changes to workplace laws.
Mackay says Howard is not seen as a charismatic leader. “A lot of people say he makes them cringe; there are aspects of his style that people find a bit (embarrassing). He’s so lacking in a visionary, inspirational style; he’s so pedestrian.”
But even that, as he himself says, is suited to the times, a time of fairly consistent anxiety and uncertainty.”
Some argue that Australians have never been big on “the vision thing” anyway. Grahame Morris scoffs at the term “visionary”.”
I hate that word. I have never met an Australian yet who got out of bed and said, `Oh dear, I’m going back into bed because no one gave me a vision.’ It’s crap,” he says.”
I just don’t think Australians work like that.
Most people live their lives around family and children and bills and mortgages and footy and mates, and politics comes in at number 12 – unless they’re angry. At the moment, through John Howard’s leadership, you rarely have an angry Australia.”
That’s possibly because of the Prime Minister’s management of potentially disgruntled voters. Wayne Errington, a politics lecturer at Charles Sturt University in NSW, is co-writing a biography of Howard. He says his continued popularity after so many years in office is remarkable.”
Usually, after you have been a prime minister for a while, you have managed to offend quite a few interest groups, so you have (what the pollsters call) `high negatives’,” he says.
He attributes the PM’s position to his ability to learn from his mistakes, such as unpopular proposed changes to aged care – “he’s famous now for being strong, but he was quite famous for his backflips” – and to his targeting of groups that might be disadvantaged by his policies.
Nancye Coulson, 76, has one of the benefits created by the Howard Government: a veteran’s gold card, “so I am looked after in a way I couldn’t afford otherwise”.
Coulson, who was interviewed for the Saulwick AgePoll, likes Howard and admires his ability to make strong decisions even when they are unpopular. But she worries for her friends with big health bills, and finds that increases in her pension are not keeping up with increases in the cost of living; her savings are dwindling.
None of these doubts, however, is likely to lead her to vote against Howard at the next election.”
There’s no one I can see who could take his place and do the job to the standard that he has done,” she says.
For those who dislike Howard, the feeling is intense. Zosia Romanowski, 25, an office manager from Reservoir, says “there have been a number of events with a certain scandal, such as the children overboard affair, and he’s just turned around and said, `I didn’t know about that.’ He’s the leader of the party and the leader of Australia, and he should know,” she says.
Romanowski fears that the industrial relations changes will leave workers vulnerable in an economic downturn, that the war on terror has set back multicultural tolerance by 20 or 30 years, and that Australia under Howard has become “a little meaner”.”
Nobody wants to pay for things they don’t use themselves. Wealthy people complain about propping up the state health and education systems because they don’t use them.”
Middle-class and aspirational voters are central to Howard’s support. Pollster Irving Saulwick says the PM’s backers include established middle-class people who dislike disorder and to whom a growing economy is important. “They value progress as material progress,” he says.
A second constituency is the Pauline Hanson-style battlers, including those who have found a foothold in the consumer society and are desperately trying to hold on to it, as well as people who are poor and jealous of what they see as “hand-outs” to other groups.”
They are the resentful battlers. I think he’s given indications to them that he doesn’t favour giving special treatment to other minority groups,” Saulwick says.
He says Howard is disliked by a “mix of lefties” who are influenced by a broad ideology rather than notions of class war. Some are so antagonistic to the Prime Minister that they dislike everything from his looks to his body language.
The unemployed Denton is one whose dislike of the Prime Minister is now all-embracing.”
The economy is in his favour but what worries me is manufacturing in Australia. Nylex closed its factory and another 120 people are out of business.”
Denton is resigned to the fact that many people he speaks to do not share his views.”
People who are well off don’t care, they don’t take an interest,” he says. “They are sort of, `I’m OK, Jack.’” He admits: “I probably would be there myself if I had done as well.”
Former US president Bill Clinton famously campaigned on how, “it’s the economy, stupid”.
According to this poll, John Howard survives by the same principle – at least for now.
TOMORROW Michelle Grattan on how John Howard has changed Australia
ONLINE Join a forum on John Howard’s prime ministership at theage.com.au
BEST THING HOWARD HAS DONE: Standing up to Japan regarding whaling.
WORST THING HOWARD HAS DONE: Industrial relations changes.
QUOTE: “A lot of his policies seem to be driving us in the direction of America with things like industrial relations and the education system, and significant parts of our foreign policy seem to be dictated by White House policy. That’s something I very much resent.”
BEST THING HOWARD HAS DONE: Management of the economy.
WORST THING HOWARD HAS DONE: Children overboard affair.
QUOTE: “I think he’s done a very good job. He stands by his convictions. The Iraq war, although I’m uneasy about it, is definitely something where he has stood by his decision in spite of a lot of pressure and that has earned my personal respect.”
QUOTE: “I think he’s done the right thing for the country in many ways in his long tenure.” Going to war in Iraq “is saying Australia is not going to just allow (atrocities) to happen” and the furore about children overboard “was blown out of all proportion”.
Interviews conducted as part of the Saulwick AgePoll on Howard’s decade as Prime Minister.
47% believe Howard has done a good or very good job
17% believe he has done a poor or very poor job
46% think they¿re better off under the Howard government
50%believe Australia has become a meaner society
35% believe health is the most important issue in their lives
20% say the worst thing Howard has done is go to war in Iraq
The highs and lows
– APRIL 28: Port Arthur massacre
– AUGUST19: Protesters converge on Parliment over IR legislation
– APRIL 11: One Nation party formed by Pauline Hanson
– May 26-28: Howard refuses to apologise to indigenous Australians at Reconciliation Convention
– NOVEMBER 3: First Telstra share float
– FEBRUARY 2-13: Constitutional Convention at Old Parliament House
– Wharfies launch industrial action against Patrick Stevedores
– SEPTEMBER 20: Australian troops arrive in East Timor
– NOVEMBER 6: Referendum on the republic
– JULY 1: introduction of the GST
– SEPTEMBER 15: Start of the Sydney Olympic Games
– AUGUST 27: Federal Government refuses to let Tampa, carrying rescued asylum seekers, into Australian waters
– SEPTEMBER 11: Terrorists attack World Trade Centre and Pentagon in New York and Washington
– FEBRUARY 14: Release of report disproving Government claims asylum seekers threw children overboard
– OCTOBER 12: 202 people, including 88 Australians, killed in bombing of Kuta nightclub in Bali
– MARCH 20:Invasion of Iraq
– OCTOBER 22: US President George Bush visits Australia
– OCTOBER 25: Car bomb explodes outside Australian embassy in Iraq
– DECEMBER 9: Senate inquiry backs claims that Howard was told there was no evidence asylum seekers threw children overboard
– DECEMBER 26: Hundreds of thousands die in South Asian tsunami
– FEBRUARY 3: Unlawful immigration detention of Cornelia Rau revealed
– JUNE: Union campaign against Government’s IR laws
– MARCH 2: Howard to celebrate 10 years in office.

First published in The Age.