How did such an apparently unremarkable man become the second-longest serving
prime minister in Australia's history?
It is no insult to John Howard to say
that his looks are unmemorable, his oratory no more than competent, his ideology
fuzzy. He has brought no big change to Australia and made scant impression on
the outside world - apart perhaps from a negative one among Asian neighbors. But
eight years, nine months and counting is a very long time given Australia's
three-year electoral cycle. He must have got something right.
Howard understood his electorate because
he represented the essential conservatism of a numerically small, prosperous,
relaxed, largely suburban society cut off by distance from its cousins in Europe
and North America. It has a need to feel that it belongs with them, while
worrying about vulnerability of its vast land mass to populous Asian neighbors.
Australia's continuing prosperity has
been the bedrock of Howard's success - a growth rate near the top of the OECD
league. One could argue that much of Australia's success under Howard was rooted
in the liberalization conducted by his Labor predecessors. But he built on that
base, enabling Australia to ride the changing fortunes of Asia from the
1997-1998 financial crisis to the current China-driven boom in commodities.
Equally one could argue that for
Australia - as for the United States - prosperity has come at the price of a
housing price bubble, excessive household debt, a massive current account
deficit and an unsustainable rise in foreign ownership of Australian assets. But
such costs are problems for the future.
Following America into Afghanistan and
Iraq may have been viewed by the non-Anglo-Saxon world - and many in Australia -
as unseemly and obsequious. A free-trade deal with the United States seemed more
motivated by politics than economics. But especially after the Bali bombing,
Howard's political instinct was right.
Australians felt comfortable with the
U.S. relationship and nervous of Islam and Indonesia. They were also a touch
resentful that the efforts of the previous Labor government to "mesh with Asia"
had been rebuffed by neighbors like Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad of
Malaysia. Howard has made a virtue of being non-Asian. Whether this is good for
the national interest is questionable. But it works at the polls.
Howard also showed that Australia's
sometime over-hyped sense of nationalism is compatible both with following
Washington and preferring the monarchy over republicanism. It is a conservative
identification of Australia with traditions that link it to its Anglo-Celtic
Howard has declined to apologize for past
treatment of Aborigines, while making much of Australia's contribution to the
allied cause in Europe during two world wars. He has exploited reasonable (and
unreasonable) popular resentment at the political correctness and multicultural
excesses of the previous decade.
Similarly, Howard's incarceration of
asylum seekers behind barbed wire, his expressed willingness to take pre-emptive
action against neighbors, and cutbacks in immigration have appealed to a nation
eager to protect itself and its prosperity from Asian demographic forces.
That is not to say that Australia is
racist. It has absorbed diverse immigrants with remarkable ease.
Multiculturalism is a fact. But Howard's more restrictive policies seemed to
reflect his own preferences as well as the political necessity of choking off
the electoral appeal of the anti-Asian far right.
Prosperity, the U.S. alliance and a
restrictive immigration policy are not always sure bets. The Liberals lost in
badly in 1972 partly because of their involvement in the Vietnam and despite a
strong economy. But that was after more than 20 years of conservative rule and
faced with a Labor party with a leader, Gough Whitlam, with personal appeal and
a strong agenda of social change, economic nationalism - and Asian engagement.
Today's Labor party as yet has no such leader and offers only modest changes in
Maybe an economic or international crisis
awaits that will produce new leaders and radical shifts in policy. But for many
reasons, Howard's once improbable dominance of Australian politics is likely to
span at least a decade.