Abjorensen, Norman: The meaning of John Howard

Abjorensen, Norman

The meaning of John Howard‘, Inside Story, 1 March 2016 updated

Written to mark the 20th anniversary of the coming to power of the Howard Government. Abjorensen is the doyen of the rise and fall of prime ministers, with the publication recently of his The Manner of Their Going: Prime Ministerial Exits from Lyne to Abbott. (The author of this note helped launch this book last month in Queanbeyan and jokingly said he hoped there would be no need for a new edition any time soon; perhaps not so much of a joke.)

The title of the article is instructive: writing about the ‘meaning’ of any of Howard’s successors would seem odd – except perhaps Julia Gillard, because of her ‘firstness’ – because none of them stayed very long or seemed to have the impact that Howard did. Abjorensen calls Howard ‘transformational’ and sets out the evidence (growth in the numbers of self-employed compared with members of unions, making bloody-mindedness towards ‘the other’ acceptable, not losing sleep over Indigenous dispossession, Anzackery, and so on) before looking at what drove Howard (something that sprang from working the petrol pump at the family servo in Earlwood, probably) and how he returned from what should have been crippling setbacks.

There is a lot more in this well-written and perceptive piece but, in the end, one wonders if the Howard era was no more nutritious or ‘good for us’ than a Choc Wedge in an Inner Western Sydney 1950s summer.

By 2007, we were in a world more uncertain than that of 1996. Howard’s political and cultural crusades had opened up social divisions; his rule divided people (unlike that other transformational leader, Bob Hawke, who worked on consensus).

Australia had changed, and not necessarily for the better. By the time the voters of Bennelong dispatched Howard, Australia had seen dogs attacking workers on the waterfront, an erosion of sympathy for the disadvantaged, the rise of a new militarism, the incorporation of Hansonism into political discourse, and the shameful episodes of the Tampa and the “children overboard” affair.

John Howard had left his mark.

More on the meaning of JW Howard from Sarah Burnside in The Monthly. Looks at myths about Howard’s special connection to ‘middle Australia’. Lots of links.

David Stephens



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