Daily Media Quotation
A Devil Of A Time, If You Look Closely
June 9, 2007
by Alan Ramsey - Sydney Morning Herald
John Howard was in an expansive mood this week. The nation's economic figures surged. So did an obscure opinion poll. A Liberal rent-a-crowd did much the same in his Sydney electorate two nights ago. Howard even threw a bone to his Treasurer. He told radio's John Laws on Monday: "People like Peter Costello. They respect very much the job he's done. People like him a lot; he's got a good sense of humour; he's done a very good job with the economy."
Nobody ever said anything near as patronising about Howard's career in the Fraser government three decades earlier, when he was still what his Government these days derides as a political "L-plater". One newspaper in 1977 gave its entire front page to a photo of a very youthful Howard, with a lot of hair, under the scalding headline "This man rapes housewives". Lest we forget. I never have.
It was the May 4 edition of the very cheeky Nation Review, a not insignificant weekly newspaper known as The Ferret, founded by the wealthy Sydney transport businessman Gordon Barton and edited by Richard Walsh (later to join the Packer empire) and Peter Manning (who went to the ABC). The newspaper made Mungo McCallum's career and launched Michael Leunig as one of the great cartoonists.
It never did a lot for Howard.
At the time Nation Review got stuck into him Howard had been an MP for just three years. He was Fraser's minister for business and consumer affairs and the paper's Melbourne correspondent, John Hurst, took up the cudgels when Howard started chopping up the former Whitlam government's Prices Justification Tribunal.
The only two paragraphs of type, in bold face, on its front page that May day 30 years ago ran right across the page under Howard's photo. They read: "The truth is that the PJT has become a rather bad joke. The few teeth it had have been extracted by Fraser's minister for business and, laughably, consumer affairs, John Howard. Stores like Myers, Woolworths, Coles, Waltons, Safeways can jack up their prices and all the PJT can do is investigate what is happening after the event.
"And then it will be too late."
Three decades later and it sounds not unlike the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's futile attempts these days to curb the greed of the oil companies in ripping off motorists while Howard, in an election year, huffs on the sidelines and the Herald runs front-page stories under the headline "This petrol rip-off must stop: PM". Howard actually said nothing so graphic and those with long memories of his demolition of the PJT in the 1970s will only snort derisively. Our Prime Minister is a creature of the corporate world and behaves accordingly.
He always has done.
As for Howard's economic credentials, given the economy is what he seeks to make the electoral battleground this election year, let me remind you just how ratty it was during his five years and four months as Fraser's treasurer. That is, from November 1977 until the Coalition's defeat in March 1983. Howard cannot now steal Costello's headlines. As he acknowledged on radio in his testimonial on Monday, they belong to his deputy.
I asked Fraser this week why he'd ever made Howard treasurer. To get his predecessor, Phillip Lynch, out of the headlines, he replied without hesitation. Lynch at the time got caught up in a land scandal at a place called Stumpy Gully on Melbourne's outskirts. Fraser, having already launched the 1977 election campaign a year early, was desperate to bury Lynch until after polling day. He succeeded. Howard replaced him as treasurer. Four years later he also replaced Lynch as Fraser's deputy.
Howard brought down his first budget on the night of August 15, 1978. He would deliver four more budgets. At no time in his five years and four months in Treasury would it ever get any better than it was on the night of that first budget. Inflation at the time was 7.9 per cent, down from 12.3 per cent six months after the Fraser government gained office. Home mortgage rates were 10 per cent. Unemployment was 6.2 per cent. Over the next five years mortgage rates would dip, for one year, to 9.5 per cent and unemployment would hit a low, in June 1981, of 5.4 per cent.
But the budget outcomes announced on the night of August 15, 1978 would never be as good, overall, for Howard's stewardship of the economy ever again. And when he left the Treasury after Labor's victory under Bob Hawke in March 1983, all of the key economic indicators would be much worse than when he arrived more than five years earlier. Inflation stood at 11.1 per cent, unemployment at 10 per cent, and home mortgage rates at 13.5 per cent.
I detailed these figures during the 1996 election campaign that ended Paul Keating's government and made Howard prime minister. I pointed out how Labor's 13 years in office had achieved far more, in absolutes, for the Australian economy than had Howard's five years as treasurer, despite the appalling peaks under Labor of 17 per cent mortgage rates in late 1989 and a million unemployed in late 1992. So that when Labor left office in March 1996, inflation stood at 5.1 per cent (11.1 per cent inherited from Howard in March 1983), unemployment was 8.6 per cent (10 per cent inherited), and home mortgage rates were 10.5 per cent (13.5 per cent inherited).
Thank you, John Howard, treasurer.
There was also the infamous budget black hole of $9.6 billion (in 1983 prices) Howard left Labor to fix after the Coalition had spent absurdly in the run-up to the 1983 election while trying to buy another win. It didn't work. Voters had had enough of the Fraser government after more than eight years, just as I think they've have had more than enough of the present mob after 11 years.
And allow me to remind you also that the man who pledged 12 years ago, as opposition leader, in May 1995, that there would "never ever" be a GST while he was prime minister, then broke that pledge three years after he became prime minister, was also the treasurer who, in his first budget in 1978, increased excise on beer, spirits, tobacco and petrol, abolished Whitlam Labor's maternity allowance, tightened the tax arrangements on superannuation and some pensions, amended the Medicare rebate system, and introduced a one-year "temporary" surcharge on all three income tax rates of the time: 32, 46 and 60 cents in the dollar. In his next budget in 1979 he welshed on his promise and extended the "temporary" surcharge for another five months.
John Howard is nothing if not consistent.
How easily we forget and how fervently politicians hope we do.
Finally, a wonderful joke by email to warm your election-year winter, as it did mine this week. Keep it alive in the months ahead.
One day, during his morning walk, John Howard drops dead. He arrives at the Pearly Gates, to be told by St Peter: "We seldom see a Liberal, so we're not sure what to do with you." No problem, says Howard. "Just let me in, I'm a good Christian."
But St Peter tells him it's not that simple. Under God's new HEAVEN CHOICES policy, Howard must spend one day in hell and one day in heaven before choosing where he'll live for eternity. And with that, St Peter rings the bell, an elevator arrives, and down Howard goes, non-stop, to hell.
However, when the doors open Howard finds himself on a lush golf course. The sun is shining, the day is perfect, and standing in front of a beautiful clubhouse is Bob Menzies, Billy McMahon, Billy Hughes, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Frank and Kerry Packer, Bob Askin, Bob Santamaria, and many more. They all run to hug him and talk about the old times they had getting rich. They play a round of golf, have a lot of laughs, dine in the club on lobster and champagne, and are having such a good time that, before Howard realises, it's time to go.
Back in heaven, St Peter takes him inside where, for 24 hours, Howard hangs out with a bunch of ordinary, good-natured people who enjoy each other's company, eat simply, talk about things other than money and treat each other decently. Not a broken promise or short-arse joke among them, but what Howard notices most is that he doesn't see anybody he knows.
The day over, Howard tells St Peter: "Heaven has been delightful but I really think I belong in hell with my friends."
So back into the elevator and down he goes, only this time when the doors open he's surrounded by endless scorched earth covered with smog and filth, while all his friends are chained together in rags and are filling black drums with toxic waste.
The Devil appears.
"I don't understand," stammers Howard. "Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a clubhouse and I ate lobster and drank champagne with all my friends. We lazed around and had a great time. Now there's just a wasteland and everybody is miserable!"
The Devil puts an arm around him, smiling, and says silkily: "Yesterday we were campaigning. Today you voted for us!"
Same old chant for the birthday
In June 2003, on the eve of his 64th birthday, John Howard told Peter Costello he was staying as prime minister for the 2004 election. In July a year ago, just after his 67th birthday, he told Costello and the rest of the Liberal Party he'd still be in office for this year's election. Now, approaching his 68th birthday (July 26) and his sixth election as leader (four wins, one defeat), Howard insists nothing has changed, whatever happens in the months ahead.
In Sydney on Monday, to John Laws: "I've said all along, and I will repeat again, I will remain leader as long as the party wants me and it's in the best interests that I do so. I haven't changed. That remains my position. It's my position now, it will be my position on polling day, it will be my position after polling day…"
In Perth on Thursday, to ABC radio: "I've said repeatedly and I'll say it again, that I'll remain leader as long as my party wants me and it's in the party's best interests that I do. If you are wanting to know whether I've lost any enthusiasm, the answer is no. I am energetically committed to winning the next election and continuing to govern…"
You see the point?
Look at the words Howard always uses to knock over leadership speculation. They're always the same.
Four years ago, after he first dumped cold water on Costello's ambitions of taking over the leadership after the 2001 election, Howard told Alan Jones on June 4, 2003: "What I've said, Alan, is that while ever two conditions exist - one is that it's in the best interests of the party, and second, that my colleagues continue to support me and want me to stay - I will stay [as leader]."
Howard has not wavered.
Always the same two conditions, always the same wording. As long as "the party, my colleagues, want me", and, significantly, while "it's in the best interests of the party".
Howard trotted them out again last July 31 after he told a press conference in outback Queensland: "Can I just quickly confirm what I communicated [by letter] to my federal parliamentary colleagues today. That is, I have taken very extensive soundings within the party about the leadership [and] it is the overwhelming view that the current leadership team, with me as leader and Peter Costello as deputy, should remain in place through to the next election [due in late October/early November this year]."
Would he stay another full term if they won?
Howard: "I'm not giving any undertakings beyond what I've previously said, and that is I'll continue to serve as leader for as long as my party wants me and it's in the best interests of the party that I do so."
And, of course, again this week.
Think about that second condition (or is it the first?). Who decides if it's in the Liberal Party's "best interests" that Howard stay leader? Not his colleagues, obviously. Howard has repeatedly made their support a condition quite separate to that of a judgement about the "party's best interests". If there is anything we've learnt about Howard over the years, it is that you must always look at precisely what he says about anything and everything. There is always a tricky bit somewhere.
As for his leadership, and the two conditions he alone has determined will apply, what Howard has been saying for four years now is that he - and only he - will decide when it's time to go.
Voluntarily, that is. Otherwise, his party will have to dump him - as Labor did Bob Hawke in December 1991, after Hawke reneged on Paul Keating, and as the Liberals did John Gorton in March 1971. Or voters will have to do it. But leave it to Howard and he'll stay until he and Janette rot in Kirribilli. Costello knows this. He worked it out long ago. As he told the ABC's Kerry O'Brien, almost with a sigh, when O'Brien raised the leadership issue on Wednesday night: "There's no point in speculating …"
And he's dead right. There isn't.