Alan Fitzgerald has been a member of the Press Gallery for most of John Howard’s political career, so he is well qualified to review Howard’s memoirs. He picks up themes not covered elsewhere, avoiding the tiresome Howard - Costello story.
THE first thing to do with a memoir by John Howard is to look at the Index. What has been left out may prove to be as revealing as to what has been written.
For example, his loyal staff at the Prime MInister’s office, including chief of staff Gerry Wheeler and Press Secretary Tony O’Leary , are reduced to a brief mention in the Author’s Note, at the back of the book. They deserve more than that in the story of a 12 year government . Peter Costello may be right in his allegation that John Howard wants all the glory to himself.
John Howard doesn’t mention the disappearance of his young, first female chief of staff, Nicole Feeley, months after the 1996 election. She perhaps made the mistake of allowing herself to become a personality in her own right in the media. There was an extensive media profile of her with photographs as the new gate keeper in the PM’s office, a feisty republican. Some press gallery journalists recalled the heady days of John Gorton’s Ainslie Gotto. Within months, the new high profile young woman had vanished and subsequently found a career in the public health system interstate.
Howard does not mention his address to the Irish Parliament in 2006. It was not a success unlike his predecessors’, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Apart from the pedestrian address he delivered – none of John Howard’s speeches is memorable - some members of the Irish Parliament were discourteous enough to boycott it.
Also absent from the narrative is Archbishop Peter Hollingworth, whom Howard appointed as Governor General to succeed Sir William Deane. Howard’s choice was controversial as was the Archbishop’s brief tenure at Yarralumla. Hollingworth was subject to a nasty media campaign against him but his fate was sealed when it was evident Howard had withdrawn his support for the Governor General. At the time, there was speculation that Janette Howard had a hand in the Archbishop’s nomination but Howard has omitted to mention the appointment, and how Hollingworth became the bizarre choice of the PM. For once, Howard’s vaunted political instincts had deserted him.
Also not mentioned is the cocktail party he gave at Kirribilli House to celebrate the defeat of republic at the 1999 referendum. Maybe because it was a ‘private’ function but nonetheless significant. I did not accept because the invitation came via the fax machine. I think Howard was saving on the cost of the invitations because they could not be issued at taxpayer’s expense.
From the time he left office on 1 December 2007 to 31 May 2010, the former PM has cost the Australian taxpayer $2,143,147.34 in office, staff and travel expenses (not in the book). It is time this perk of office for former PMs was abolished – say, five years after leaving office. Taxpayers in the same period paid $1,089, 938,17 for the upkeep of Gough Whitlam. And he was prime minister for only three years, some 35 years ago! These outgoings I might add do not include the prime minister’s annual pension.
After his election in March 1996, Howard said Paul Keating told him Kirribilli House would be available within days (to allow Keating to vacate The Lodge). Howard adds, “I had no desire to engage unseemly haste in taking possession of the trappings of office and power”. But he had no intention of living in the Prime Minister’s official residence – The Lodge - in Canberra. At first, Howard gave the spurious excuse of not wanting to interrupt the education of his youngest son but after he left school two years later John and Janette Howard continued to reside at Kirribilli House, on the shore of Sydney Harbour.
It is said that Janette Howard vetoed the move to The Lodge. Why, has not been convincingly revealed. This is not nitpicking. It may be a case of sheer indulgence by the PM and his wife. The suspicion is that Janette had other reasons for snubbing the national capital’s official residence that derive from Howard’s time in Canberra as an MP for 22 years before he became Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the taxpayer paid the cost of Howard commuting between Canberra and Kirribilli. Howard claims this arrangement did not add to the taxpayer’s burden because there were fixed costs for running both Kirribilli House and The Lodge. But this is nonsense. What about the cost of the RAAF providing the Canberra-Sydney flights for Howard to indulge in playing happy families at Kirribilli?
With John Howard it is not what he says but what he does that matters. He didn’t gain a reputation for being mean and sneaky for nothing.
Whether it is the Government’s policy on illegal boat arrivals or his hanging on to power too long, there has been an element of duplicity running through Howard’s public life.
Take East Timor. Howard and the Opposition in 1975 had been quite content with the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. He and they had put good relations with Indonesia ahead of the human rights of the East Timorese people. Right up to the end, Howard had argued against East Timorese independence. Yet he presents himself as a saviour of the East Timorese! Circumstances dictated that Australia should intervene after the post 1999 referendum violence. The Howard government was just playing catch-up with 24 years of Australian public opinion.
Yet, Howard is right to bag senior diplomat Richard Woolcott and the Department of Foreign Affairs who had advocated appeasement of Indonesia during and after the 1975 invasion. The pity is that successive Australian governments listened to them.
Throughout his career, Howard has been a shrewd and calculating politician, essential attributes in a Prime Minister bent on survival. He has his fans but he never gained the affection of the electorate. Even those who voted for him did so out of pragmatism –better the devil you know.
While the Howard and Costello team was responsible for ridding Australia of the enormous debt run up by Paul Keating and the ALP government, the PM was responsible for a huge increase in government advertising, much of it misused for partisan political purposes in the guise of ‘information’.
Howard never let parliamentary tradition or custom stand in the way of political opportunity; making him less a conservative than he proclaims he is.
Even as a monarchist, Howard was suspect. When the Queen was in Melbourne for the opening of the 2006 Commonwealth Games, Howard placed the Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffrey MC, in the second row of seats so that he could sit beside the Queen. The body language between Her Majesty and the PM did not look good.
Howard also usurped the role of the Governor-General in farewelling troops and welcoming them home. Very presidential. Michael Jeffrey gets only a passing mention in the book.
Howard, with his working class origins, was not the traditional grammar school Liberal with the silver spoon but he was representative of the emerging Australia. There would be a shift from class-based politics with its traditional loyalties to one of aspiration, and the Liberal Party was best placed to represent these people. They might be small businessmen, migrants with hopes for their children, so-called ‘Howard battlers’ or that once solid ALP voting block of Irish Australians, now middle class and abandoning Labor.
The ALP run by factions and mafia style families, whose self interest was above that of the public interest, was increasingly irrelevant to this new generation of voters. John Howard’s instincts were right and he could read the political wind better than his colleagues and opponents.
Just how far Howard has come from Earlwood to Kirribilli can be gauged from an old black and white TV quiz program that he once participated in as a schoolboy, in which I remember, he pronounced the word ‘Italians’ as ‘Eye-Talians’. But he was one to learn and adapt, even to multiculturalism.
Lazarus Rising is a long book of 512 pages at time when readers appear to have a short attention span. It is plainly written and, like the author, lacks excitement. There are no confessional admissions or revelations here. To those interested in politics it is an interesting summary albeit self serving of the life of one of Australia’s most successful prime ministers to date, in terms of long serving at least.
John Howard was paid $400,000 for the manuscript. Whether Harper Collins recovers the money is a moot point. They printed 50,000 copies of Lazarus Rising and it went on sale for $59.95. Within 3 days of the launch, the book was on sale at BigW for $29.95. The Australian is even giving away copies of Lazarus Rising to any new subscriber.
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