Monday will be the 25th anniversary of one of the most prophetic speeches in Australian political history.
Then Prime Minister Paul Keating told the National Press Club, “When the government changes, the country changes . . . but what we’ve built in these years is, I think, so valuable – to change it and to lose it, is just a straight appalling loss for Australia.”
He was dead right.
The legacy of John Howard’s Government is the opposite of the picture he painted on election night in 1996 when he said that the things that “united Australians were infinitely more important and more enduring than the things that divided Australians”.
Rather he favoured the well-off, the strong and big business over the vulnerable, the less wealthy and wage and salary earners. He divided rather than united.
Let us look at them.
Education. Howard ramped up Federal allocations to private schools, under the banner of “choice”.
The result was large amounts of money going to concert and assembly halls, chapels, swimming pools, chaplains, and bloated salaries for Principals who became Chief Executive Officers. The money was under the Budget heading “Education” but a lot of it did not go on education. To the contrary it sucked money away from real public education where there is no spare cash for anything but real education.
As a result, Australia’s educational achievements on every national and international measure have fallen since 1996, particularly PISA. It is a legacy hard to reverse because of the politically effective squeals of the private-education industry – and it is an industry.
Health. The Howard Government introduced several carrots and sticks to browbeat people into taking out private insurance – penalties for waiting to take it out after you are 30; Medicare surcharges if you are on a high income and have no private insurance. It diverted a lot of money to private insurance, 14% of which goes in administration, including directors’ fees and profits. Medicare, on the other hand, spends just 3% of income on administration.
The Howard Government deliberately starved Medicare, reducing the rebate to such a level that many GPs could not survive on it and had to charge a levy on top. The result was fewer people seeing a GP when needed and greater long-term costs to the public system.
The starving of funds to public hospitals blew out waiting lists. This had two effects. Specialists could charge what they liked because people with private cover and wealth were always willing to pay to jump the queue.
But it is now at crisis stage where the middle-class, highly insured cannot afford the scandalous “out of pocket” specialist fees to jump the queue for their operations.
Again, higher “real” spending under the heading “health”, but less spending on real health.
Tax. In a grab for the grey vote, Howard introduced a “cash back” system for share dividends, that would make the Amstel “There’s More” Man blush. So, anyone who got a dividend from a company that had paid tax could get a cash back tax deduction for that tax even if they had paid no tax in the first place.
In the first year it cost $500 million. Now it costs $7 billion and rising.
Then we have the 50% tax discount on capital gains. Under Howard, if you earned money by the sweat of your brow or body you paid full tax. If you sat back and let capital do the work for you, you paid tax at half the rate. A damnable legacy that has proved impossible to reverse.
In Defence, Howard policies have had a catastrophic legacy. Going in to Afghanistan and Iraq has cost Australia blood, treasure and international respect for no gain. Its horrific legacy survives in the war-crimes allegations which Australia now has to defend and the huge cost of veterans’ rehabilitation.
In foreign affairs, Howard’s Timor policy which opposed independence until the Americans said it was no longer acceptable bore a great cost in East Timorese life and suffering. And the Howard Government’s deceitful spying on independent Timor for financial gain over oil resources has cost Australia the brand of “Hypocrite” when we try to assert the values of a rules-based international order.
The legacy has been unwindable, as the Witness K case attests.
In Indigenous affairs, Howard’s denial of an apology for the stolen generation and his turning around of the spirit of the 1967 referendum to legislate against Indigenous interests by imposing the intervention added to the legacy of white racism that has pervaded since 1788.
His immigration policy gave licence to the great immigration Ponzi scheme. He ramped up immigration which favoured the property industry, big business, and big retail against the interests of the existing population who had to struggle with the consequent congestion and failure of infrastructure to keep up.
Once weaned on to the Ponzi policy it has become near impossible to reverse. It was compounded by Peter Costello’s government subsidy for over-population with his slogan, One for Mum, one for Dad and one for “the nation” – read “to help destroy the planet”.
On refugees, the most generous thing you could say it that it was mean-spirited. In reality it was inhumane criminality with indefinite detention for people who committed no crime. Howard spawned the One Nation racism by not calling it out at the earliest opportunity, as Malcolm Fraser would have done.
On climate change, Howard knew something had to be done and did nothing.
On governance, Howard starved every accountability governmental organisation from FOI, audit and human rights and crushed every voice on the left side of the nave of his so-called “broad church”.
Even now we struggle with Job Seeker because Howard replaced wage indexation of the dole with CPI indexation.
Everywhere you turn in public policy you can see how Australia turned for the worse in 1996 and how difficult it has been to reverse. Labor at present does not have the political courage. Earlier, Kevin Rudd squibbed it.
People say Billy McMahon was Australia’s worst Prime Minister. Not so. At least he did nothing. Howard, on the other hand, did lots of things that made Australia worse.
Yes, he did the guns. But he got far too much credit for it. With 35 dead bodies on an iconic historic site, strict party discipline, and no National Rifle Association, any non-Howard Liberal Government or any Labor Government would have done it just as well, but we would not have had to bear the quarter-century legacy of the worst Government in Australia’s history.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 27 February 2021.