There is no perfect politician, and there is no perfect political party. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, good points and bad points. And a political leader will be judged depending on what people consider to be important. So it is difficult to find uniform and consistently agreed upon criteria for judging a leader or a government. We all have our own standards, and my assessment of great leaders and leadership is in many ways as subjective as anyone else’s.
Having said all that, I offer a few thoughts on the departure of John Howard and his Coalition Government. First, a few negatives. For a conservative leader and a conservative party, ruling a nation for 11 years, one might have expected a few more wins on some crucial issues, be they family issues, life issues or related concerns. More could have been done in these areas, and on occasion the Prime Minister and some of his ministers voted on issues in ways which pro-family and pro-life folk would have been uncomfortable with.
But there were nonetheless some impressive victories. Nailing down into law the one man, one woman nature of marriage was certainly a very significant achievement. Of course that is not the end of the battle. The states have been doing their best to circumvent this, and the battle for marriage is far from over. For example, within days of the Rudd election victory, the ACT Chief Minister John Stanhope announced that he expected easy passage of a civil union bill for homosexuals, something the Howard Government had previously twice knocked back.
There were other lasting achievements which occurred in the Howard years. A nice summary of some of the major ones can be found in an opinion piece by an overseas observer, Mark Steyn. He also begins by noting some areas in which he disagreed with Howard. But overall, he finds his loss to be a “loss for civilisation”.
Consider several crucial areas. The first concerns the war on terror. Says Steyn, “What mattered to the world was the strategic clarity Howard’s ministry demonstrated on the critical issues facing (if you’ll forgive the expression) Western civilisation. First, the prime minister grasped the particular challenge posed by Islam. ‘I’ve heard those very silly remarks made about immigrants to this country since I was a child,’ said the Democrats’ Lyn Allison. ‘If it wasn’t the Greeks, it was the Italians … or it was the Vietnamese.’ But those are races and nationalities. Islam is a religion, and a political project, and a globalised ideology. Unlike the birthplace of your grandfather, it’s not something you leave behind in the old country.”
He continues, “Indeed, the pan-Islamic identity embraced by many second and third-generation Muslims in the West has very little to do with where their mums and dads happen to hail from. ‘You can’t find any equivalent in Italian or Greek or Lebanese or Chinese or Baltic immigration to Australia. There is no equivalent of raving on about jihad,’ said Howard, stating the obvious in a way most of his fellow Western leaders could never quite bring themselves to do.”
And it was not just Howard, but many ranking government ministers who seemed to be clear on the threat of Islamism. Consider Peter Costello for example. “Sympathising with Muslims who wish to live under sharia law, he mused: ‘There are countries that apply religious or sharia law: Saudi Arabia and Iran come to mind. If a person wants to live under sharia law these are countries where they might feel at ease. But not Australia.’ It’s a glum reflection on the times that such an observation should be controversial. Yet it stands in marked contrast to, say, the Dutch Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner, who remarked that if the electors voted to bring in sharia he’d be OK with that, or the Swedish politician who said that Swedes should be ‘nice to Muslims while we are in the majority so that when they are in the majority they will be nice to us’.”
Another and related issue is the whole sense of national purpose, pride and identity. The Coalition Government saw these as important characteristics of a healthy nation, or as Steyn puts it, “the Coalition’s next great strand of strategic clarity. At his 2006 education summit, Howard called for ‘a root and branch renewal of Australian history in our schools, with a restoration of narrative’.”
Steyn continues, “As he explained at the Quadrant 50th anniversary celebration: ‘This is about ensuring children are actually taught their national inheritance.’ The absence of a ‘narrative’ and an ‘inheritance’ is a big part of the reason that British subjects born and bred blow up the London Tube, why young Canadian Muslims with no memory of living in any other society plot to behead their own prime minister.”
“You can’t assimilate immigrants and minorities unless you give them something to assimilate to. It’s one thing to teach children their history ‘warts and all’, quite another to obsess on the warts at the expense of all else. The West’s demographic weakness is merely the physical embodiment of a broader loss of civilisational confidence. Australia should never have had a ‘department of immigration and multicultural affairs’, but, given that it did, Howard was right to rename it the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Government should promote citizenship, not multiculturalism.”
He concludes, “The Coalition was all but unique in understanding the three great challenges of the age – Islamism, demography, civilisational will – that in other parts of the West are combining to form the perfect storm. Just as importantly, unlike so many second-tier powers, Australia did not put its faith in the chimera of insipid obsolescent transnational talking shops in which attitudes substitute for policy.”
Indeed, on many of the big-picture items I believe the Coalition Government quite often got it right, and often did so as a lone figure in the world. It remains to be seen how the new government will score on some of these crucial issues, but based on past rhetoric and performance, it does not look all that promising.
As mentioned, Howard and co. were far from perfect. But on some of the important matters of the day, they seemed to be light-years ahead of many of their peers. They will be missed.