For resilience, ambition and determination, there is no match for John Winston Howard, writes Karen Kissane.
He was centre of the national stage on Saturday night, beaming from the podium with his family as 800 party faithful roared their delight at Lazarus’ fourth coming. But come Sunday morning, Prime Minister John Howard was just another worshipper at the prayer service at his local evangelical Anglican church in Sydney. Well, almost.
All the important events of this small community were raised: a baby’s christening, a parishioner’s illness, the 132nd birthday of the beautiful sandstone church, which has an Australian flag and a Union Jack mounted near the altar. The Prime Minister, in his turn, got a share of the attention in the prayers of intercession: “We pray for Mr Howard and his newly elected team, that in his elation and sense of humility he will look to You and to Your ways to lead this great country so that justice and mercy for all will be his ambition, as they are Your ways . . . but also (that he be) aware of the needs of so much of our world and (be) proactive to meet those needs.” Presumably the PM joined the rest of the congregation in their “Amen”.
Leaving the church, a cheerful Mr Howard declined to speak to reporters, other than to say that he had been phoned the night before by both US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. “They rang me and congratulated me and I had a brief discussion with each of them.” He would spend the rest of the day talking to a few people and “taking it a bit easier”.
He could well afford to. He has joined a pantheon of rare prime ministerial successes; only Bob Menzies and Bob Hawke share with him the winning of four elections.
“This is a truly historic achievement,” he said on election night. “You have to reach back to the ’60s (to find an incumbent government that) has increased its majority on two successive occasions,” he said, referring to his hero Menzies.
Mr Howard has probably won control of the Senate. He has also strengthened his dominance over the party’s internal critics by virtue of his sheer success.
It will probably take at least two elections for Labor to claw back Howard’s comfortable majority. The man who spent so many years in the wilderness, the pollie who couldn’t win a chook raffle, now appears to have an unassailable hold upon the nation’s leadership.
Before the last federal election, an eye-rolling Paul Keating is reported to have said of Mr Howard: “The man must have been hit in the bum by a rainbow at birth.” In fact, John Howard’s luck – and his ill-luck – have come in alternating bursts. As a boy at Canterbury Boys High School, he could not muster enough votes to become one of 25 prefects. As Opposition leader in 1987, his electoral hopes were stymied by the machinations of the Joh-for-PM campaign. In 1988, a poll reported that “John Howard appears to be a leader without any kind of voter mandate. He is neither liked nor respected . . . We can only question the potential inherent in a leader (of whom the) strongest perception is that he’s boring.”
In 1989, his own party dumped him as leader. Asked then if he could make a comeback, he said: “That’s Lazarus with a triple bypass – I mean, really.” But his wife, Janette, had said in 1987 that she never doubted they would make it to the Lodge: “I think it is our destiny. He told me he’d be prime minister the first time we met. He will be, wait and see.”
Now his party is hailing him as the greatest conservative prime minister since Menzies, who served 15 years, five months and 10 days as leader of the nation. There are similarities between the two, agrees Paul Strangio, a political historian at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.
“Both of them struggled early on, and their ascendancy has been built on three main pillars: their ability to manage the economy, their superior ability to look after Australia’s interests in dark and threatening times, and their forging of constituencies. For Menzies, it was ‘the forgotten people’; for Howard, it’s been ‘the battlers’.”
Howard has more appeal for the battlers than Latham, argues Professor David Flint, a leading monarchist and one of the party faithful celebrating at the Wentworth hotel on election night. “I think a lot of rank-and-file Labor supporters have voted for John Howard . . . Traditional Labor voters are very conservative.”
Dr Strangio agrees: “Labor has a problem in reconciling its two constituencies: those who are middle-class, liberal and cosmopolitan, and the more traditional working class.”
Gerard Henderson, author of a history of the Liberal Party called Menzies’ Child and a former chief of staff for John Howard, yesterday summed up the Prime Minister’s appeal this way: “He’s not at all charismatic, and he can be a bit boring. But you know where he stands and he doesn’t surprise you because there’s a degree of consistency (in his attitudes) that goes back 30 years.”
Mr Henderson believes the Government would have had to blunder seriously to lose this poll, given the state of the economy. So did this election fall like a ripe plum into Mr Howard’s lap?
Dr Strangio says that, in fact, it is possibly the first election win that Mr Howard can claim to be all his own: he won in 1996 because of public loathing of Paul Keating; in 1998, with the GST, he fell over the line and came close to being a oncer; and in 2001, critics argue, the outcome was affected by the Tampa and the children overboard affair. This time, Howard’s stance was “Here I stand, I can do no other,” says Dr Strangio. “In the end, he basically stood on his record . . . and he won handsomely.”
What does the PM promise for his fourth term? In his election-night speech he returned again to his core values, his love of country, the strength of the economy and his decisions to send Australian troops to East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“This is a proud nation, a confident nation, a cohesive nation, a united nation, a nation that can achieve anything it wants to,” he said; a country that he passionately believed “to be a beacon of democracy and tolerance and hope and achievement all around the world”. He said this election had always been about one thing: who Australians best trusted on security and the economy.
John Winston Howard is determined and resilient, as any reporter who has panted after him on one of his early-morning walks will attest. His gait and speed are deceptive; like that of elderly marathoner Cliff Young, it appears unremarkable, almost awkward, but he sets a cracking pace that forces followers into occasional little trots to keep up.
His walk on election morning was along his usual route, which takes in views of the Sydney Opera House, Luna Park, and the Harbour Bridge. On this walk, as in his political life, critique did not sway him. He did not slacken his stride when he reached the graffiti chalked at intervals on the pavement below his feet: “Vote for the forests”; “WMD – Where are they?”; “Free children in detention”; and “Howard throws the truth overboard”.
He knew where he was going and he paid no mind.
On election night, that honed political judgement was proved right.
First published in The Age.