Monday night saw a tsunami of facebook status updates the likes of which the political world has never seen. So and so is watching the Howard years. Of course, I already knew that because I’ve had their house bugged. But I didn’t know that about the fifteen other people who decided to share their viewing plans with me.
Many watched it because they wanted to make sure Howard remained politically dead. Many more watched it for the same reason Howard and many of his colleagues were drawn to the thankfully non-Fran Kelly narrated Labor in Power- the opportunity for informative voyeurism free from the fragments of bias inherent to the prism of mere commentary. Thus far, it hasn’t been quite as spectacular as one would hope. That’s not to say there weren’t some choice moments though.”
From the outset, it was clear that this setup, at least in the interim, is different from Labor in Power in that Howard is trying to soften himself, rather than, say, trying to settle scores as Keating’s cabinet and that of his predecessor did entertainingly, but rather self-indulgently. Having gotten the stating the obvious out of the way, it was surprising to see Howard try to present the Port Arthur massacre as sink or swim test of the Prime Ministerial mettle. Clearly, Howard has always tried to adhere to the traditional Tory, steady hand in the time of crisis persona. It served him well, in no small part saving his bacon in 2001. But it is entirely revisionist, ex post facto rationalisation to suggest that this was the real test of Howard’s first term that would either make him, or break him.
While the Port Arthur massacre was a huge issue at the time- not merely a political one- to the Coalition and, in particular, Howard, IR reform was their shibboleth. Bringing about change at the waterfront was a somewhat discrete, and highly visible arena in which to do it. This, and the introduction of the GST, were the lasting changes that emerged from this period, the real tests of the first Howard Government. Any Government would have passed legislation severely limiting the availability of firearms in that context. Port Arthur and its aftermath was a test for Government in general, but hardly a baptism of fire for a Prime Minister when such reform was broadly supported both in the legislature and in the broader, non-rural community.
As I’ve argued before here, the GST showed Howard was prepared to go to the wall in order to get something he believed necessary done. At the time, it gave him a narrative as Prime Minister that passage of the much-loved Workplace Relations Act 1996 that just got him over the line in 1998. The conduct of the Government in supporting Chris Corrigan was hardly popular, nor surprising, as most voters can probably surmise that the Coalition is not the friend of unions. Again, tighter gun laws were hardly surprising at the time, either. But the fact that the man had the minerals to do what Keating and Hewson had failed to bring about, essentially through sheer force of will, showed that he was made of sterner stuff than most any modern politicians here or abroad.
My colleague Nick Mack notes the omission of members of the Executive Council who fell foul of the Ministerial Code of Conduct. The first thing I noticed, prior to him being interviewed, was a fresh-faced Minister for Transport, John Sharp. There’s plenty of readers who won’t know the name. For all my concerns about the Rudd Government’s absence of narrative, the absence of a Ministerial abattoir at least partially offsets this. A failure to examine the manifest failure of the early Howard Ministry is astonishingly self-serving.
The focus on Hansonism was, I felt, overdone. Sure, it was an undeniably huge issue, and of the three major themes of the first installment of the Howard Years, the one that probably received the most media coverage during that time. It could have been substantially edited, to the exchanges between Howard and Costello, and/or Downer, who disturbs the viewer by showing just how much he craved John Howard’s praise. Gin blossoms notwithstanding, the man blushes when talking about the bloke who replaced him. Yes, Costello is spineless. But have some self respect Alex.
Ultimately, though, the prominence of One Nation was fleeting. Howard was clearly opportunist, trying to see which way sentiment on Hanson would break. When it became clear that the benefits of allowing her ad hominem attacks were outweighed by the detriments, he too joined in the criticisms of Hanson. Howard was concerned at the time, also, that an attack on Hanson might contradict his own campaign against what he called a black armband view of history. He couldn’t argue for an increasingly conservative narrative of Australian history and political debate while stifling one such voice. Costello’s attacks on Howard, insisting he was weak in not acting earlier, are remarkable when one considers his track record of taking action to wrest control of a situation. It’s clear that Costello’s revisionism, like Howard’s, will be a common thread linking the episodes.
For me, the highlights were the candour of the incredibly decent former Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, concerned that the PM would consider his collection of guns an arsenal; John Sharp’s remarkably fair assessment of the waterfront situation when contrasted with Reith’s bizarre attempts at making jokes or pretending he has a poor command of facts; and of course, Lindsay Tanner’s cameo appearance, considerably hairier while asking a question of the erstwhile Member for Flinders concerning the dispute. Those were the days. While the Howard Years is decent- the schadenfreude meter always comes out for these sorts of shows, watching colleagues, former mentors, former opponents, or current ones positioning themselves in history- it really needs to get out of the sort of unsurprising, relaxed and comfortable mindset. Time for some blood. Labor voters will be looking forward to repeat Reith performances over Tampa. Liberal voters, to how JH pulled rabbit(s) out of a hat. How this will be presented will decide whether the series is interesting posturing, or a respectable historical document.