Australian Prime Minister John Howard is only just on his way out, so it’s maybe a little early for hagiographies.
But Greg Sheridan’s latest column, titled “A tribute to John Howard”, begins in earnest the process of bowdlerisation and sanctification that will only end when Prime Minister Tony Abbott cuts the tape at the opening of the John Howard National Library.
For according to Sheridan, “Howard is an absolute giant of Australian history,” who ranks “among the top five strategic prime ministers in Australian history.” After which, Sheridan’s prose becomes decidely purple.
Apparently, John Howard has “remade national security policy at all levels.” Well, considering the man and his team had eleven long years stewardship of the nation’s foreign policy, it would be difficult not to have done so — although “mostly it has been evolution rather than revolution.”
Let’s consider for a minute the meaning of ‘evolution’. It can be thought of as cumulative, trial-and-error, random, hit-and-miss, incremental change that as likely as not culminates in evolutionary dead-ends. Think of the koala hanging for grim death to his eucalyptus tree, like a discarded hypothesis.
As for the ‘revolutionary’ aspects of Howard’s legacy, Sheridan is quite arguably being charitable in the examples he evinces, which could easily bear other interpretations. For example, here’s a glaring piece of cant that just barely manages to avoid the obvious:
In East Timor, although Australian policy was confused and ineffective leading up to the independence referendum of 1999, it was right for Australia to send troops to intervene after the militias began their killing spree.
Does a “confused and ineffective” policy indicate the strength in foreign policy that Sheridan attributes to Howard?
Anyway, how many times must this myth of the Howard Government’s ‘decisive’ action with regard to the conflagration in East Timor be debunked?
What really happened was that the Government gravely deplored the violence against innocent Timorese, while earnestly sitting on its hands and pleading there was nothing we could do. The Government even seemed to feign surprise, notwithstanding that accurate intelligence-gathering had given it forewarning of the violence.
The silence — indeed the deep sleep — of Australia was broken by a largely trade union-led campaign which awakened grass-roots clamour for our Government to get off its arse and do something.
But sadly it wasn’t the PM’s regard to his own people’s injunctions that tipped the scales. No, finally it was a gentle but firm word in the Government’s ear from the Clinton Whitehouse that inspired Mr Howard to act ‘decisively’ in spearheading the intervention — which was all but too late to stop much of the deadly violence.
As with the economic prosperity we now enjoy, the Government’s apologists tend to credit the PM with the impetus for the intervention. But in reality the impetus for the Australian-led mission in East Timor was due to the hard work and caring of many, many ordinary Australians.
Labor had left behind a grievously weakened army and the malign fiction of the Defence of Australia policy had left our forces almost undeployable.
The Howard Government was into its fourth year in office, and only by 1999 had begun to appreciate our “weakened” defence forces? Wow, such forward-looking perspicacity!!
Howard’s government had to manage incredibly complex diplomacy with the US and Indonesia, and indeed the rest of Southeast Asia, and send in thousands of under-equipped Australian troops when there was no guarantee there would not be substantial casualties and military disaster. Doing this took both exceptional courage and a high degree of operational competence. From that moment onwards, the Howard government began the overthrow of the stultifying orthodoxies of defence policy and began to re-equip our defence forces and begin the long business of expanding and vastly enhancing the Australian army.
“Incredibly complex diplomacy”? All the Howard Government really had to do was say “Yes” to the Clinton Whitehouse, and then lean on US authority to ride out the inevitable shitstorm of Indonesian resentment.
That “exceptional courage and high degree of operational competence” in fact belonged to the diggers, and their military command, that the Government finally sent over there — not to Mr Howard, who already had the strong support of those thousands of ordinary Australians in the street who begged his Government to act.
That “the Howard government began the overthrow of stultifying orthodoxies,” etc., is presumably Sheridan-speak for finally getting off their arses and getting things in order, more than three years and another election into their ministry.
Howard, and his close collaborator Alexander Downer, saw the election of George W. Bush as a strategic opportunity for Australia. They set out to secure a free trade agreement, enhanced military co-operation, better intelligence access, more Australian influence on US policy in Asia and much else. They succeeded in all their ambitions and, enormously to Australia’s benefit, have transformed the US alliance.
The Australia-US Free Trade Agreement was dead in the water until the Howard Government committed Australian forces to the misadventure in Iraq, whereupon forty US trade officials filed into the country — literally on the eve of the invasion — to hammer out Howard’s prize.
On Iraq, Howard made the right call on the information available, and it took incredible guts to do it. There were certainly no lies involved — every responsible authority was convinced Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction — and Howard will be vindicated by history.
On all of that, Greg, the jury is still out. And there’s lots of information available, with more surely to follow, that suggests very much the contrary.
Wrapping up, Sheridan offers:
The truth is, Howard was an old-fashioned gentleman, a decent bloke by any measure. He grew immeasurably during his leadership, but the essence of the man remained.
A decent man, a genuinely great prime minister and a giant in Australian foreign and security policy.
Mr Howard will lerv you too, Greg! Forever and amen!