John Howard is one of the most experienced members of Australia's parliament (Phillip Ruddock being the most experienced), having been initially elected to the inner-suburban Sydney seat of Bennelong in 1974. He served as a minister throughout the entire term of the Fraser government. After the Liberal Party's defeat in 1983, he became Deputy Leader of the Opposition, but in 1985 successfully challenged Andrew Peacock for the leadership of the Liberal party (and thus the title of Opposition Leader). After leading the Liberals through two unsuccessful elections, he was replaced again by Peacock. Finally, Howard returned to the Liberal Party leadership in 1995 and won the subsequent 1996 and 1998, and 2001 elections.
Howard as Prime Minister
Howard's 1996 win was in some ways a surprise, in that few political commentators ever expected him to return to the Liberal Party leadership after losing it a second time, but in others predictable given that the incumbent, Paul Keating, lacked empathy with the broader public with his intellectualised "big-picture" approach to politics and combination of political thuggery and elitist tastes. His campaign contained little in the way of detailed policy and concentrated heavily on Keating's perceived failings. Once in office, his first term was cautious, his one major policy achievement occurring after the Port Arthur massacre of 1997, where he convinced and/or coerced state governments into heavily restricting the availability of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns.
His 1998 election campaign was based around reforms to the tax system, including a goods and services tax, a broad-based value-added tax. He managed to lead the party to an election win, a rare achievement considering most parties around proposing new taxes have failed to win elections. Despite Howard's essentially domestic focus, external issues intruded significantly into Howard's second term. The first occurred in 1998 and 199 with events in East Timor, where Australia led pressure on Indonesia to uphold their offer of a referendum on independence, and later contributed a significant peacekeeping/policing force to protect the inhabitants against pro-Indonesian militias. Most Australians and the rest of the Western world viewed this as a moral, principled stand, but it came at the cost of antagonising Indonesia and, probably saw the fall of the Habibe government there.
In 2001, Howard stretched international law to its limit in a change of policy on asylum-seekers attempting to reach Australia from staging points in Indonesia, in an incident involving the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa which rescued a group of Afghan asylum seekers whose ship had sunk. After the asylum-seekers pressured the captain to head for Australia, Australian SAS officers (on Howard's orders) forcibly took over the ship to preven it entering Australian waters, instead transferring them to the tiny Pacific Island of Nauru. This unprecedented military action was hugely popular in Australia, where distrust of asylum-seekers from Islamic countries was already high, and only increased with the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York (which occurred only days after the Tampa incident). However, it is viewed by a significant minority of Australians and broadsheet writers around the world as morally repugnant and legally dubious.
He, and his supporters, portray him as standing up for Australia's "battlers" - the lower-middle class small-business people of the outer suburbs and provincial towns, with similarly conservative social values - against the left-leaning unionised employees, the tertiary-educated, inner-suburban elites, and welfare recipients. Howard has demonstrated considerable instincts for identifying hot-button issues with the Australian people and using them to his own political advantage, backing his instincts against sometimes heavy criticism from academia, the broadsheet media, and even from within his own party.
John Howard made highly controversial statements in August 1988, saying that Australia should limit the rate of Asian immigration. These comments lead to accusations of racism, and the resultant outcry was responsible in part for him losing the Liberal party leadership later that year. Once he became Prime Minister, a vocal minority suggested he was racist, for his failure to sufficently criticise Pauline Hanson.
Self-proclaimed as the "most conservative leader the Liberal Party has ever had", Howard's political vision combines a lassiez-faire economic policy, with highly conservative social views. The Howard government has emphasised a tight rein on government spending and tight restrictions on welfare (including "work for the dole" schemes that require the unemployed to participate in make-work projects). His government cut funding to the Australian Broadcasting Commission. It hasadically increased university fees, tilted the welfare and taxation systems towards single-income families and away from the childless and single people, overruled the government of the Northern Territory when it introduced the world's first legislation providing for legal voluntary euthenasia for the terminally ill (but refused to do so over mandatory sentencing laws inspired by California's "three strikes" laws despite heavy pressure to do so from outside his party and within it). It has used its customs powers to prevent state governments from trialling the prescription of heroin by doctors as a treatment for drug addicts.
Howard has expressed views that indicate he is opposed to an indepdendent Australian republic (Australia, although an independent nation, remains constitutionally subject to the British monarchy) He has been heavily criticised for his political positions with regard to Australia's indigenous people, and particularly for his refusals to formally apologise for the stolen generation or create a formal treaty with the indigenous population. (A landmark court case in 1992 entitled Mabo having ruled that Australia had been illegally occupied by the British in 1788).
Previous Australian Prime Minister: Paul Keating
Next Australian Prime Minister: not applicable (John Howard is the current office-holder)