Emerging from the age of darkness

John Winston Howard was Australias second-longest-serving Prime Minister, presiding almost unchallenged over the political landscape for well over a decade.

His time in government cannot be dismissed lightly. However it can be dismissed heavily, so here goes.

Even on his political deathbed, Howard insisted that his government had delivered great economic reform. In fact in almost 12 years he implemented just three important changes, all of highly dubious merit.

The first was to move the responsibility for monetary policy from the elected government to the government-appointed Reserve Bank. This meant that he no longer had to take the blame for rises in interest rates, while of course continuing to demand the credit for falls. This early switch developed into a pattern: throughout his prime ministership, Howard steadfastly refused to accept responsibility for anything. Only on Saturday night, with nothing left to lose, was he prepared to own up.

Howards second legacy was the never-ever GST, a particularly nasty piece of regressive taxation whose only virtue is its universality; if a GST is absolutely comprehensive it is impossible to avoid. By compromising with Democrats to exempt some so-called essential items, Howard destroyed even this advantage. The GST remains an unfair and lazy way of collecting revenue, and has led to an immensely complicated series of benefits and hand outs to compensate for its ill effects. It is now entrenched as a monument to Howards political dishonesty and economic incompetence.

The third innovation was, of course, WorkChoices. Unheralded and badly thought out, this grab-bag of ideological thuggery was thrust upon a startled electorate when an unexpected opportunity arose, and the results are now clear. Some of its worst features have already been quietly disposed of, and most of the rest will go as soon as the senate allows. What is left will indeed constitute reform of the industrial relations system; but it will not be the reform of which Howard boasted.

Howards other claim is that he leaves Australia a stronger, prouder and more prosperous country than he found it.

Stronger? Well, that depends how you measure it. Howard huggers have always claimed that in international affairs, Australia now punches above its weight. What they actually mean is that Howard was duchessed by George Bush, who found him a very amenable acolyte. The rest of the world saw us in that light. Stronger should mean more independent, and self-confident. The only bit of Australia in which those qualities are more obvious is the Australian cricket team.

Prouder, then? Certainly more arrogant, less tolerant the pride that is counted among the seven deadly sins. But prouder of real and lasting achievement? What achievement?

And more prosperous some people certainly are, much; and the countrys overall wealth has grown, although Howard has had very little to do with that. But we are also far, far deeper in debt, and less secure as a result. By an economists measure, our material wealth has grown; but if prosperity is seen as a wider indicator of quality of life, as genuine happiness, Howard failed us badly.

And if we are wealthier, at what cost? We are certainly not the people we were in 1996 when the government last changed.

For more than eleven years, John Howard led us on a voyage driven by greed and fear, into parochialism and paranoia, selfishness and racism, bigotry and corruption, and other dark places in the Australian psyche where we never should have gone. It was a mean and ugly trip, and it will take us all a long time to recover.

As he left the Wentworth Hotel on Saturday night surrounded by his weeping and cheering entourage of orcs, my main feeling was not of exultation or even euphoria, but of relief the same sort of reaction as I had to Cathy Freemans win at the Sydney Olympics, or at the moment, 17 years ago, when I stubbed out my last cigarette. The result was long-anticipated and entirely welcome, but how dreadful I, and many others would have felt if it had not happened.

And on that note spare a thought for Labors patriarch, Gough Whitlam, who against most expectations has survived to see another Labor government in Canberra. The final word should be his: a great quotation which he used in another context altogether, but which is utterly appropriate for November 24, 2007: E quindi uscimmo a reverder le stelle.

It is the last line of Dantes Inferno, describing the poets return from hell, and it means: And thence we emerged, to see the stars again.

But if Howard was wrong about most things, he at least got Peter Costello right.

For eleven years the man sat their drooling, lusting after the leadership of his party, talking up a storm to his credulous colleagues, plotting with sycophants, sending out his dwarfish messenger Glenn Milne to relate improbable stories of his talent and support. He never actually had the guts to do anything about it, but by golly he let it be known that when the opportunity came, he would show us all.

And when his party was not only ready to offer him the prize, was indeed in real need of his services, Costello spat the dummy right out of the ground. Prime Minister, with all the trappings of office and all the resources of government, would be just fine; but leader of the opposition, the challenge Kevin Rudd took on at precisely Costellos age before sweeping to victory in less than a year, looked just a little too much like hard work. Poor Petey-pie, too old at fifty, too lazy at any time.

When his colleagues are considering a farewell gift for him, they should pass over the gold watch and all chip in for an iron lung. This would at least remove any lingering doubt over whether Peter Costello would work in one.

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