Thursday, November 20, 2008

A dignified silence

John Howard won't tarnish his legacy like other former prime ministers.

Have you heard about the former Liberal prime minister's remarks to a journalist about the state of his party?  Here's some of the dialogue:

Question:  The Liberal Opposition in Canberra?

Answer:  They break my heart.

Question:  Your Liberal party successors?

Answer:  The incumbent is a hopeless leader whose predecessor is just a mischief-maker.

Question:  And the former Liberal treasurer?

Answer:  A contemptible squirt.  Pathetic.  Dreadful.

John Winston Howard?  Ranting and raving about his beloved party and his former colleagues Malcolm Turnbull, Brendan Nelson and Peter Costello?  Hardly.  It was Sir Robert Menzies.  And he was blasting the party he founded, especially his former ministers Billy Snedden, John Gorton and Bill McMahon.

The date was 3 April 1974 -- eight years after he retired from politics -- and Ming was speaking on the record with the veteran journalist David McNicoll.  The conversation, however, was not published until a year after Australia's longest serving prime minister died in 1978.  Whether the normally cautious Menzies, who had spent much of his retirement in relative obscurity, intended the conversation to be released is not clear.  In any case, the episode serves to highlight that even elder statesmen and former prime ministers can let their guard down -- and do so in a most undignified and regrettable manner.

That won't be said of the other Liberal party elder statesman and former prime minister.  True, John Howard has returned to the limelight this week with the broadcast of the four-part ABC1 television documentary series The Howard Years, in which he breaks his year-long silence on his time in power from March 1996 to December 2007.  But don't expect Howard to do now what his predecessors have consistently done since they left office:  self-indulgently speak out about virtually all matters under the sun and, in the process, sometimes make a goose of themselves and tarnish what is left of their legacies.

Neil Brown -- Howard's deputy during the dark days of opposition in the 1980s -- once remarked that the trouble with former PMs is that they "seem to think we all rush to the breakfast table every morning and rip open the newspaper to see what their views are on every subject of public importance.  And they give it all such a pompous moral tone that you feel inadequate for not just agreeing with them".

Indeed, in the years since they departed the political scene, our living former leaders, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and especially Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating, have not only condemned their successors but spelled out to all and sundry their problems with their party, the nation and the world.  What Conrad Black once said of Margaret Thatcher's obsessive interference in Tory party and national politics after her retirement from the Commons in 1990 could easily be said of Australia's ex-prime ministers:  that her almost deranged intemperance exceeds the bounds of political decorum.

Keating, in particular, has set the perfect benchmark in how a former prime minister ought not behave:  describing his successor (Howard) as, among other things, a "desiccated coconut" and "a pre-Copernican obscurantist" who fanned the flames of racism;  deriding within days of his passing a former legendary editor and columnist (Paddy McGuinness) for his "prejudiced, capricious and intellectually corrupt mind that was all over the shop depending on what suited his miserable purposes at the time";  and having the gall to take all the credit for creating the economic prosperity of the Howard years?

Howard, however, is different, preferring to follow the example set by John Major in Britain after his election loss in 1997 and Winston Churchill after he retired as PM in 1955.  That does not mean Howard will fade into the sunset anytime soon.  After all, he is writing his political memoirs, delivering the occasional speech to the party faithful, speaking on the international circuit, giving the rare media interview to foreign news outlets and mentoring young conservative true believers.  It just means he will be more measured, prudent and, shall we say, dignified than those other has-beens.  His autobiography, for example, won't be about settling old scores, but a chronicle of an important period in Australian history in which he has, among other things, played a major role in transforming the nation from a heavily protected and subsidised closed shop into a high-growth and market-oriented powerhouse that remains the envy of the industrialised world.

Lest I sound like a Howard hagiographer, I should stress that I've had deep disagreements with the former prime minister, from his big spending government that should have made any honest Whitlamite proud to his astonishingly unqualified support for Uncle Sam.  Leading conservative intellectual Owen Harries has rightly pointed out that Australia, under Howard, "found itself engaged in an ideological war against a country that, however vile its regime, did not in any way threaten us or the international status quo -- and was, as we now know, our best wheat market".

Nevertheless, it's worth pointing out that Howard will avoid the fate of other has-beens.  However tempting it may be, he won't be reaching from the political grave to blight the affairs of his party or nation.  That is a rare -- and admirable -- trait in Australian public discourse.

It's also a shame.  For if there is an ex-prime minister worth listening to it is surely Howard.  There is, after all, much to be said for a man whose age, experience and temperament constitute not only a formidable intellectual and political arsenal but provide a touch of scepticism about grand visions and weird social experiments.  (Think of a Bill of Rights, which remains a hot topic in Labor party circles.)  It is, moreover, doubtful whether any politician of national stature -- former or current -- could write or speak as well as Howard.

In any case, he has much to be proud of.  Like him or loathe him, Howard has presided over several impressive achievements over more than three decades in public life.  Whatever the political issue -- immigration and border protection, industrial relations, Asian engagement, gun control, Aboriginal reconciliation, the republic, the culture wars, East Timor, anti-terror laws, the US alliance -- Howard has had a significant influence on national life for better or for worse.  And he can always take solace in knowing that the only way Kevin Rudd could beat him in last year's election was by being more like him.

True, he clearly misjudged his exit from the political stage;  and this theme will cloud the rest of ABC1's documentary series.  Still, it should not determine his otherwise impressive record and legacy.  Which is perhaps another reason why Howard, unlike other former PMs, feels no need to get back into the arena.


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