Friday, March 03, 2006

Editorial: Howard's 10 years at the top

Australian history is rich in larger-than-life figures from all sides of the political spectrum. The likes of Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser. There is flamboyance, also, in many of the present generation of politicians. Yet they have fallen by the wayside during John Howard's 10-year tenure as Prime Minister. A man boasting all the charisma of a suburban bank manager is this week celebrating what all his predecessors, with the exception of Sir Robert Menzies, failed to achieve. By any yardstick, it is a remarkable accomplishment.

In analysing Mr Howard's success, much is usually made of both his luck and genius for staying in touch with the pulse of the Australian people. Both are undoubtedly true, but good management is necessary to make the most of good fortune. Equally, Mr Howard has been willing to swim against mainstream thinking. Polls suggest a majority of Australians oppose their country's involvement in Iraq, just as most were against the introduction of GST. Yet the Prime Minister has been able to defy this, and to emerge unscathed.

The reason lies in one of politics' great axioms: that economic wellbeing is the path to an electorate's heart. His Government, aided by a resources boom, has maintained Australia on a path of steady growth. This prosperity has laid the foundations for a comfortable and relaxed populace, the very thing Mr Howard promised when elected to power in the 1996 election.

This sense of comfort, however, has never extended to his Administration. Mr Howard has warned his Liberal Party colleagues repeatedly of the dangers of complacency; that Governments devoid of ideas or agenda are unlikely to survive long, even in prosperous times. Cautiously, but efficiently, his Administration has set about transforming Australia's economic framework, borrowing from, and finessing, reforms already implemented on this side of the Tasman.

As a statesman, Mr Howard has also wrought substantial change in his country's foreign relations. Backing the United States to the hilt in Iraq, and earning derision as a deputy sheriff of the Bush Administration, was a stumble that even a subsequent free-trade agreement could not justify. But the establishment of better relations with Indonesia has been of great significance to the Asia-Pacific region, and New Zealand's security. Decades of barely concealed hostility were swept aside by Australia's generous response to the Boxing Day tsunami. During the same period, Mr Howard has also ensured that relations with this country remain warm, despite deep concerns over New Zealand's defence spending and nuclear-free policy.

Australia's robust backing of the war on terror has, of course, erased some of the comfort delivered by economic security. With their country identified as a potential terrorist target, Australians have every right to question their safety. Paradoxically, this fear and trepidation has probably strengthened Mr Howard's hand. He has a record of tough, decisive action, first demonstrated in the gun laws enacted after the Port Arthur slayings. Nervous Australians demand a similar approach to national security.

At the moment, therefore, Mr Howard's position is unassailable. One recent survey found that only 6 per cent of those polled thought he should hand his deputy, Peter Costello, the prime ministership before the next election. Another decreed him Australia's best Prime Minister of the modern era. A largely contented nation will tolerate his mistakes and misjudgments - but only so long as the economy remains healthy and his Government avoids an inertia born of complacency. That is the next challenge for this most ordinary of extraordinary politicians.

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