In March, John Howard visited Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where I am a Master of Public Policy student. Howard began his visit with a formal address on Australia/China relations. About 250 Harvard students and staff assembled in the school’s famous John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum to listen.
Howard reflected on his term as a period of deepening integration between Australia and China, evidenced by growing trade between the two countries. He framed the relationship in pragmatic terms, which drew a contrast to the familial bonds he described between Australia and the US.
Howard gave a robust response to a question about his refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generation. While he didn’t say anything new on this front, he did give us a taste of the spirited impenitence he’ll adopt when defending his record back home.
The following day, Howard participated in a seminar of about 40 students in the school’s Centre for Public Leadership. He spoke extensively about his background, made some broad observations about liberalism and leadership, and then responded to questions.
While the forum was interesting to the Australians in the room, other students found Howard difficult to engage with. The only time he showed real energy and emotion was when he was asked about cricket.
Unlike many Labor activists, I don’t hate Howard. I feel enormous respect for anyone who chooses to devote themselves so fully to Australian public life. It’s pretty easy to bay from the sidelines, not so easy to get involved and take responsibility for where the country is headed.
So, I mean no discourtesy when I say that Howard greatly disappointed me. He lacked substance, spice, and displayed a terrifying lack of reflection about his time in office. For so long, I believed that this was simply part of his pedestrian political style. Surely, during his 11 and a-half years in Australia’s highest office, deep ruminations were forming beneath the surface? If there were, he chose not to share them on his visit to Harvard.
In sum, Howard’s visit was, of course, enormously interesting – but only because he rates so high on the ‘influence on contemporary Australia’ meter. As a professor commented after curiously prodding me with the question of how he remained Prime Minister for so long, “Howard is able to say the headline, but he can’t tell you what’s in the second paragraph of the story”.