Unsurprisingly, John Howard and his conservative coalition lost Saturday’s federal election in Australia heavily. It also looks like Howard will lose his seat – a sitting Prime Minister has only ever lost his seat once in Australian political history. On a personal level, his passing is somewhat of a melancholy event for me. I first started taking a strong interest in politics from the age of about 13. Howard was elected when I was 15, so for many years he has been a political figure of very close scrutiny and interest for me. Thus, the “end of an era” aspect is a little sad, and I think that despite the kind of doublespeak people in his former position often need to talk in order to Keep Everyone Happy – or at least keep the minimum amount of balls in the air – he is quite a decent and humane man. He genuinely had the “common touch”; not in the charming, polished, stage-managed way that impresses the media and the elite. He was less of a “gather a media entourage and head to the nearest working class pub to have a sham beer’n’bellylaugh with some rough men in singlets” type – ringing up a late night radio station talk show after he’d clearly had a few too many beverages was more his style. His uncontrived ordinariness, often verging on folksy, is a rare commodity amongst politicians of his seniority – and it is something I will miss.
Having said all of that, we should not get too sentimental about his defeat. John Howard and his party are no friends of ours. Many of his party’s major reforms, whilst bearing objectives which most in the small-government camp would consider a step in the right direction, were implemented with a liberally (pardon the pun) spread layer of added regulation. Consider the tax code which, after eleven years of ongoing “reforms”, stands as an epic bureaucratic tome defying compliance. Or the recent industrial relations changes, which somehow made a fiendishly complicated system even more so.
Certainly, Howard can accurately claim that Australia became richer and more economically stable whilst he was in office. Nevertheless, he and his team should be remembered as big-government conservatives, and we liberals must not forget that Australia is more prosperous today in spite of his government’s efforts, rather than because of them. My only regret is that his successor is likely to be even more meddlesome.