A Chat with The Hon John Howard OM AC

By Chaneg Torres

John Howard was the Prime Minister of Australia from 1996-2007, making him the second longest serving Prime Minister in Australia’s history: a remarkable feat considering the revolving door of Prime Ministers in the last decade! For those who consider themselves conservatives, he barely needs an introduction. Like a Colossus, he bestrode Australian politics and indeed continues to be deeply respected by most Australians.

The government he led is widely seen as the setting the gold standard for stable and good government. Its achievements are numerous including sweeping tax reform and industrial relations reform, support for families, school choice, the restoration of confidence in our borders and migration program, a fierce defence of Australian identity, unprecedented economic growth and a Federal Government surplus with no net debt. The sound economic management of the Howard government meant that Australia came out of the Global Financial Crisis relatively unscathed and recession free.

The Howard Government’s phenomenal electoral success was based on its appeal to the ‘Howard Battlers’; mainstream Australian families, many of whom traditionally voted for Labor. They were drawn to the philosophy Howard championed: the belief in economic liberalism and social conservatism. They felt the Howard government directly addressed their bread and butter concerns: their desire to freely pursue their and their family’s aspirations via their own enterprise and work and according to their own values, with the empowerment rather than the heavy handed patronisation of government. They saw the left’s pursuit of high taxes and attacking aspiration in the name of fairness as an attack on them. They loved the country they called home and were tired of the the left’s constant disparaging of Australian identity. Howard’s advocacy for the exceptional nature of its liberal democratic values was a breath of fresh air to them.

I was privileged to chat with Howard about the nature of his conservative philosophy, its successful application during his time in government, reflections on current global political trends and issues close to home for us on campus.

You attended Sydney University as a law student. Were you politically involved as a university student? What sorts of activities were you involved in?

I wasn’t very heavily involved. I did join the Sydney University Liberal Club but I wasn’t very active. Unlike a lot of other people who I came into contact with later on who really cut their teeth politically at university, I didn’t. One of the reasons for that was the physical separation of the law school from the rest of the University, and I only went to the main university campus when I went to Union night debates. The other reason is that I had a lot of hearing problems when I was at university and I found university quite difficult as a result. [Also], the last two years [of university] I was an articled clerk so I wasn’t very active at University. [However] I was at that time a member of a local Liberal branch.

What do you remember the climate at university being like for a young conservative? Did you feel like a minority? Do you recall having political discussions with your peers?

I certainly had a lot of political discussions with my peers. I didn’t feel like I was in a minority. Bear in mind it was the late 1950s and there was a very different mood. It was before the social and political cultural changes of the 1960s. I graduated in 1961 so I lived in a different period of time.

Was your political philosophy or worldview well developed during university? How did your ideology develop so that you came to that position? Were there particular books you read, influential lecturers or teachers? 

In terms of books, I read some of John Stuart Mill and Wealth of Nations. I can’t really think that any of the lecturers I had at university had a big impact on me politically. [At university] my views were [already] quite well formed. I grew up in a pro Liberal, small business background. Because I only did law subjects, I didn’t do philosophical subjects or political science, I wasn’t exposed to thinking beyond what I read in books and I had very strong views. I guess its fair to say at that time the political divide was what you would call the historic left/right divide between the belief in private enterprise verses greater state control and intervention. [So] I believed in individualism: the individual [being] more important that collectivism [and] I believed in private enterprise. [This is why] I guess working for the government wasn’t something that was attractive to me. People like school teachers and so forth were different but generally speaking you didn’t work for public service, you tried to work for private enterprise.

You’ve described yourself as a Burkean conservative? Could you elaborate on what you mean by this? 

A Burkean conservative is somebody who doesn’t believe in change unless it’s beneficial. I don’t automatically oppose change. I ask myself, ‘Is it beneficial to change?’ When people argue to change something, I say ‘Right, how are we going to be better if we change something?’ If we’re going to be better, I’ll support it. If we’re not going to be better, I’ll oppose it. So conservatism means in my view to support change only when it’s going to improve the lot of mankind or society.

You’ve famously said that Australian Liberalism holds two tendencies together: that of John Stuart Mill and Edmund Burke. Could you expand on what you mean by this? How does Mill interact with what you’ve said about Burke and change? 

Well, I’ve said that the Liberal Party of Australia is the custodian of two traditions: the classical liberal tradition and the conservative tradition. I would then go on to say it is the party of John Stuart Mill as it is the party of Edmund Burke: the broad church. What that means is quite easy really. My support for more open markets and freer trade and deregulation represents the classical liberal tradition. My opposition to getting rid of the Monarchy, my support for the rule of law, for the traditional institution of society, my opposition to gay marriage: those things are based on not being persuaded that making changes there is going to improve things.

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It’s been said by some that economic rationalism, the elevation of the rational economic individual and their utility maximisation is fundamentally at odds with conservatism because of the way it replaces the ends of family and civil society. What would you say to that? 

I don’t think it is at odds. The individual maximises his talents and uses his talents and that benefits him and his family. I’ve never seen a conflict between those two things. I don’t advocate selfish individualism. People often say to me now ‘what do you think of so and so, he’s made a lot of money’. My stock reply is that I have absolutely no objection to people making a lot of money, provided they do it honestly and they pay their taxes. It’s the only way to property organise society and get the best outcomes. I see that as wholly consistent with helping others and helping society. I believe very strongly that people should give back. People who are highly successful have a moral obligation to give back to society but the damage done to the natural order of society by forcing people to give back more than they want to produces a worse outcome than just leaving things as they are because it destroys people’s incentive to work hard. You’ve always got to have incentives for people to work hard and succeed. Provided you have sufficient rules to ensure they do it honestly and they pay their taxes, then you can hope that there will be an element of altruism in what they do: that they will use some of the proceeds of their hard work and success in helping others. Now, if they don’t, a proper taxation system will ensure that people are looked after.

In your view, how did your conservative outlook come to bear on major economic and social issues during your time as Prime Minister? Are there a couple of issues that stand out for you? 

Yes. My defence of the constitutional monarchy, my very strong support for policies that strengthened the economic position of families: the belief that you should have a tax and welfare system that recognises the cost of having children. I often used to say if you have a couple living in one address and they don’t have any children and you have a couple next door who have two children, and the combined incomes of both families are the same, I don’t think the couple with the two children should be paying as much tax as the other two. I don’t apologise for that. That’s the foundation of the Tax Benefit system and I’m not happy with the fact that the position of some families have been reduced by changes to the family tax systems.

Another issue was the new schools policy which I introduced not long after I was elected which has led to the expansion of low fee independent schools. It’s something I’m very proud of because it has given a greater freedom of choice to families on lower incomes. I’m a great believer in giving people choice and one of the good things about Australia is that in social policy we try to maximise choice between government and private provision. The private health insurance rebate system is another example. It’s a very necessary incentive for people to cover themselves against more expensive medical procedures and it takes a load off the public system.

I would also say gun control laws are an expression of my conservatism. People talk about the right to guns. Well the greatest right a citizen has is the right to walk the streets without fear of arbitrary assassination.

Young conservatives often feel like they are a minority on campus and especially in humanities tutorials they feel intimidated to participate with free market and socially conservative views. What advice would you have for them?

Well, I think that’s because the left has taken over the university. But don’t feel intimidated because there’s far more support for those [conservative] values in the community than your university lecturers will tell you. Like all arguments, you just have to dig in and hold your ground and argue. The intellectual bullying that goes on in universities now is appalling.

One of the big issues at the moment for young people at university is the prevalence of identity politics and safe spaces: basically the notion that your opinion is worth less if you belong to what is deemed a privileged grouping and that those in oppressed groupings should be allowed to shelter from debate. What is a conservative response to this?

I think identity politics is one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton lost. If you want an explanation as to why everyone was surprised by Trump’s victory, its that Hillary Clinton pursued identity politics to the n’th degree, and she paid very dearly for it. I am utterly opposed to segmenting society. One of the reasons I was always sceptical of multiculturalism as a philosophy, and I remain deeply sceptical of it is that it extols difference rather than the universality of the values we have as an Australian society. Part of the problem that Australia has and the West has is that we lack enough self belief in our own philosophy and our own success. Western civilisation has been very successful and we shouldn’t apologise for being part of it. People come to this country because of who we are, not because of what they want us to become.

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What would you say to those people who want to segment us and say that if your opinion is offensive to what we deem to be an oppressed minority, you shouldn’t be allowed to have an opinion? 

Well, that’s plainly a restriction on free speech. [In this environment, you defend free speech] by extolling the Voltairian principle: I don’t agree with what he says but I’ll defend to the death his right to say it. If you apply that principle to arguments that don’t involve an encouragement of violence or law breaking, then you’ve got a sound basis to argue. You must have encountered many examples of people claiming to be offended by something somebody had said. Well being offended is something that happens to all of us on occasion. You can’t build a legal structure on sanctioning any words that might offend people. If they are designed on any reasonable test to bring about a result that involves violence or physical hurt then that’s a different matter. But that’s always been the law. The common law already deals with that. You don’t need it to be made into a statute.

At the university, the Union tried to deregister the Catholic and Evangelical groups for requiring a profession of faith by members of the executive. Could you share your thoughts on that episode and the importance of religious freedom?

That was an outrageous attack on religious freedom. The Union Board members didn’t place much value on religious freedom because they are, and many people who favour those polices are not only disbelievers in religious freedom. It goes further. They are hostile to religious belief and practice. People don’t have to join an organisation that says you can only be a member if you believe in the gospel. They don’t have to join it. It would be a different matter if it were a requirement of going to the university or sitting for an exam. I thought that it was a no brainer.

Diversity and inclusion are not absolute values. What is an absolute value is tolerance: tolerating different points of view. But once you say diversity is an absolute value, you are in effect embracing identity politics. How else can you implement diversity unless you establish quotas for the diverse bits. Now, when I was Prime Minister we practiced a non discriminatory immigration policy. I’ve frequently said we have a country that draws people from the four corners of the Earth, but united behind a common set of Australian values. Now that’s the aspiration. The problem with “diversity” and quotas is that it undermines the merit principle. That’s one of the great maladies of elevating diversity to an absolute. How do you determine in implementing diversity what allocation you make for this or that ethnic group? Is it determined by the number of people then of that ethnic group in the Australian community? Don’t you allow for change? What happens when you get more people from India or China, do you have to adjust? It’s pointless.

With the rise of Trump and protectionism involving an increasing skepticism around immigration and free trade, do you think the form of fusionism you advocated for is under threat in Australia? How can it successfully counter Trumpism?

I’ve never seen any tension between the two because in a way, my economic philosophy accepts and anticipates and allows for change. The more economic change you have, often people in other parts of their lives are looking for continuity and certainty. I’ve never seen any conflict between the two of them. The idea that if you’re an economic liberal you have to be a social liberal or if you’re an economic liberal you can’t be a social conservative has never seemed to me to be a valid proposition.

I think we have to wait and see how the Trump Presidency works its way out. One of the reasons he won was that he appealed to people who felt that economic change had hurt them and left them behind and obviously it has hurt some people. But the responsibility of people on the centre right of politics is to argue the benefits overall. And there’s no doubt that the benefits of globalisation and open trade and competitive capitalism have been infinitely more beneficial than they have been harmful. They’ve lifted millions of people out of poverty. Contrary to what the “warmists” say, the greatest moral challenge we have is still the elimination of poverty. I can’t understand how anybody could think there’s a greater moral challenge the world has than the elimination of poverty. And yet globalization has done more to eliminate poverty over the last 20 years than anything else in the history of mankind since the industrial revolution?

We’ve always had populism. Its called dissent. You’ve always had people who’ve suffered from economic change being unhappy and voting against the people they blame for that economic change. There’s nothing new about that. So of course its present, but not as much as in America because our middle class hasn’t been hollowed out the way it has been in America. It’s one of the most important strengths we had.

Chaneg Torres is a former president of the Conservative Club

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