Admit it: You watched the first episode of ABCâ€™s The Howard Years, put aside your own political bias and loved Howard’s cunning and beguile.
Within the constrains of one hour, Fran Kelly and the gang picked up many of the most significant events of Howardâ€™s first term : waterfront reform, firearms control, Hanson, the killer budget of 1996, the Wik 10 point plan, the GST.
Those few years were terrible in terms of governance and stability. Consider the significant events not canvassed that made government even harder:
â– Members of the executive who fell foul of the Ministerial Code of Conduct;
â– Howardâ€™s dropping of bonds for high aged care services to keep faith with wrinklies – a big backflip from which the health sector still suffers;
â– Brian Harradineâ€™s role in the Senate;
â– Mal Colstonâ€™s superb coveting of the Deputy Presidency of the Senate; and
â– The drawn out debate over the legislation that overrode NT laws permitting euthanasia.
Howard comes out of the first term as leader who was prepared to cut some core constituents lose and then scramble to win them back. The Howard Years subscribed to the idea that A New Tax System was designed to herd back the Liberal voting small business person who might have been drifting towards Hanson or Labor. I support this view but many.
For many business people, a GST meant the beginning of tax reform they had yearned for. Unlike Hewson, Howard gave them sweeteners: Family Tax Benefits to parents, especially one income families, and the 30 per cent rebate on health insurance has been overlooked to name just a few. He was prepared to be unloved and them bribeâ€™em back â€“ politically, great stuff!
No Government can really be understood without acknowledging the weakness and strengths of its Opposition. Labor chose continuity and likeability in Kim Beazley Jnr but Howard and Costello did a very good job in framing him as economically and administratively incompetent: “Beazleyâ€™s Blackhole” and the Collins “underwater rock concert” class of submarines stuck as mud.
Howard got the Hansonites and their sense of marginalisation; Costello had no time for them. History will be kinder to Costello with regards to the â€˜put Hanson lastâ€™ campaign. Liberals in Queensland have not forgotten the disastrous decision to put Hanson ahead of Labor during the 1998 State election. The Nats could have got away with it but not the Libs whose political bread and butter were well educated Brisbane seats. The Libs were reduced to 9 seats.
In this regard, Costello was politically and morally vindicated. But there was something ungracious and carping about Costelloâ€™s performance. He seemed to want own all successes and none of the failures.
Compared to Ruddâ€™s transition, the Howard Government really did struggle. Howardâ€™s ambitious agenda and sense of urgency was almost Whitlamesque in its crash or crash through approach. This is to Howardâ€™s credit.
In comparison, Rudd first year feels so pedestrian and superficial. Terry McCrann has accurately described Wayne Swanâ€™s first budget as Costelloâ€™s latest. The Rudd Government has not set about an ambitious first term agenda and seems to be setting up for a much more ambitious second term with an ETS and tax reform high on the agenda. Or is Rudd just Steve Bracks’s writ large tinkering at the edges of his predecessorâ€™s reformist successes? Whaddyaathink?
(My Highlight: Peter Reithâ€™s selective dementia and sense of fun about being a hard bastard as he stared down the Maritime Union of Australia.)