Former prime minister John Howard, Howard Library director Professor Tom Frame and National Museum director Mathew Trinca, 7 March 2018
MAT TRINCA: Good afternoon. Wonderful to see you all in the Peninsula Room of the National Museum of Australia.
The Honourable John Howard OM, AC; David Jones, Chair of The Council of the National Museum of Australia; Professor Brian Schmidt, the Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University; and Professor Tom Frame, Director of the Howard Library of the University of New South Wales, Canberra, and a great friend of the Museum, as well, as you all are. Welcome.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it’s terrific to have you here for this very special event.
I begin by acknowledging that we meet today on Ngunnawal [and] Ngambri traditional lands, and I honour their elders, past and present. It’s a great moment to have our honoured guest here, the former Prime Minister of Australia, the Honourable John Howard OM, AC.
And, I think it’s especially pleasing to welcome Mr Howard here to this place, the National Museum of Australia, that was, in many respects, for so long an institution anticipated in Australian life, but not yet built. And indeed, it was a decision of Mr Howard’s government early in the term, Mr Howard himself, to commit to the building of the National Museum of Australia, and for the Museum to be ready, in time, for the Centenary of Federation celebrations in 2001. It’s a particular pleasure, really. And, thank you Mr Howard for being with us today.
It’s been a great opportunity, also, to show Mr Howard the building, the Museum, and also to foreshadow some of the plans that we’ve got to develop the institution in the years to come. But today, I’m looking forward, very much, to our special guest speaking to us on the history of liberalism of Australia, really from Deacon to Howard. And then, following that, to discuss with us defining moments in Australian history – those moments in our past that have come to be etched into our collective memory. Of course, we always have slightly different views about what those moments are. And that’s part of the strength of this program, that encourages all Australians to join this exercise of thinking about what matters to us as a country, and what has marked us as a people.
I’m particularly grateful to Mr Howard for permitting us to film the proceedings today, because we hope to include some of these discussions online, on the Museum’s website. And, for this, in itself, to help to spur and provoke other people what is a national discussion about what matters in our past. So, thank you Mr Howard for that.
To introduce Mr Howard more formally, and indeed to lead our conversation, I’m delighted to welcome a great friend of the Museum, the Director of the Howard Library, Professor Tom Frame. Now, Professor Frame is a well-known historian [and] author in his own right. He’s had a remarkable career, is author [or] editor of more than 30 books. But, he also is a remarkable person in his own right.
After more than 20 years of service, excuse me, in the Royal Australian Navy, Tom actually resigned in 1993 to train for the Anglican Ministry. And, after parish work in Australia, he then was appointed Bishop to the Australian Defence Force in 2001. He then became Director of St Marks National Theological Centre. And indeed, in 2014, he joined the University of New South Wales, Canberra. And, he’s now, of course, the Director of the Howard Library at our Parliament House, under the auspices of the University of New South Wales, Canberra. I couldn’t think of anyone better to have here to introduce Mr Howard, indeed, to lead us in the conversation today.
TOM FRAME: Thanks Mat, for that introduction. Whenever I hear myself described in those terms, I realise I probably sound as though I’m someone who couldn’t hold down a decent job at a biscuit factory for more than a few years. Mat is a great friend of mine, and colleague. The relationship that has developed between the National Museum of Australia, and UNSW, and the Howard Library is one of particular importance to us. Just by way of background, can I say, in 2014, Mr Howard decided that he wanted his official papers to be lodged where they come through to the national archives, but actually to be held by the University of New South Wales, Canberra, at the Defence Force Academy, because he thought that’s where they would get more attention. And indeed, that’s proved to be the case.
This is the first time a prime ministerial body of records has moved outside of the Archives, to the custody and care of another institution. And, we’re most privileged that it’s UNSW Canberra. To further their interests in the Howard years. And, indeed, to give it a theme, which is, ‘How does public leadership work in Australia?’, the university established the Public Leadership Research Group. Our intention is – in a non-partisan, non-political way – is to ask questions, serious questions about the Howard years. Mr Howard, of course, is the second-longest-serving prime minister in Australian history. And, I know this by heart, it’s 11 years, eight months, and 23 days that he was indeed prime minister.
I think, that all Australians, I think, and I’ve actually met some of them, so I’ve walked around the Museum this morning, are grateful for the stability, at least, for the Howard years. And, contrasting, at least, with Mr Howard, firm conviction on matters of importance to Australians as people in a continuing way, respect about his time as our national leader. Mr Howard, as I’ve said, is the second-longest-serving Australian prime minister. He entered parliament in 1974, and his first sitting was the double dissolution that followed the election, a historic moment in itself.
Since that time, there are few things in Australian life that John Howard hasn’t been a part of, that he hasn’t influenced in some way. I know that all Australians applauded his response to the terrible events of Port Arthur, which are depicted here in the Museum, the rampage that left 35 people dead. That Mr Howard set Australia as a world leader in the control of firearms. And, he continues to be, I think, rightly applauded around the world. And held up as a national leader, who at a time of great crisis, acted decisively. Whatever people’s political persuasion, I think they acknowledge then that it was significant. Subsequent reforms, things like the GST, which now I note that no political virtue would roll back. It’s part of our public life, and we accept it as a way of funding things that happen publicly.
But, most to, perhaps germane, to us gathering this afternoon, is Mr Howard’s personal interest in Australian history. That it should be promoted, that it should be discussed, that it should be argued about. In my dealings with Mr Howard, over 17 years, I’ve never heard him insist that anyone should take a particular view of any chapter in Australian history. It is the entitlement of all Australians to their history. And they will do that better when they come to institutions like this, when they look at bodies of documents, and not necessarily take the line fed to them by others, but hear all the perspectives on our national life, and come to their informed view.
So few prime ministers, I think, have put their government’s money where its collective mouth is, and said, ‘We are gonna fund the discussion, the presentation, and interpretation of history’, than John Howard. It’s with great delight that he agreed to speak about something about which he has been known, liberalism in Australian history, from the very first Liberal of the 20th century, Alfred Deakin, to the last, John Howard. Would you please welcome him to the lectern.
JOHN HOWARD: Thank you very much Professor Frame; Dr Brian Schmidt, the Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University; Dr Trinca, the Director of the Museum. Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for this opportunity to talk. And, can I say to those presiding over the Museum, it’s been a great delight for me this morning, with the Director, and also the Chairman of Board, David Jones, to wonder through the gallery, and to – Oh, can I also acknowledge, the presence of my former parliamentary colleague and President of the Senate, Margaret Reid, who I noticed. And, if I noticed other people I should have acknowledged, I’ll interrupt the flow and refer to them.
But, it’s a special satisfaction for me that in the time my government was in office, we were able to inaugurate two great cultural institutions – this Museum, and also the National Portrait Gallery. And I had the opportunity, along with the former chief patron of that Gallery, my wife, to attend the 20th anniversary dinner last Friday. And, they are two great institutions. As the Director will testify, as we wandered around I took the opportunity of making some observations about particular parts that attracted me, and also offered some suggestions, as former prime ministers tend to do. But, that all goes with the territory.
Telling our national story is hugely important. We don’t do it well enough. We really don’t. And, telling the story of, not only the Australian nation, but also the Australian nation as part of the inheritance of western civilisation. Which, of course, brings me to another hat I wear at the moment. And that is the Chairman of the Ramsey Foundation, Western Civilisation. Which, at the moment, is engaged in very fruitful discussions with the Australian National University, for the inaugural scholarships which will be endowed by that foundation. But that is a broader subject.
My agreement today, is to share some thoughts to you about liberalism. You can use a capital ‘L’ or a small ‘l’, it doesn’t really matter. Liberalism in Australia, from Deakin to Howard. Now, it ends with Howard, not because good Liberals haven’t followed Howard – many have – it’s just that you’re talking about a particularly defined period. Now, the Liberal Party of Australia as we know today has only existed since 1944. And, it was a conference here in Canberra, presided over by then Robert Gordon Menzies, the founder of the party, and Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, that led to its formation. But, of course the strands of that party, which exist in a very influential way up until today, have been around for a very long time.
As many of you know, the great battle in the early years of Federation was between Free Traders and Protectionists. The rather oversimplification – and it was an oversimplification – was that the Protectionists were largely Victorians, and the free traders were largely based in Sydney. But, that was a bit of an oversimplification. Of course, the beginnings after Federation of the Australian Labor Party as a parliamentary force – the Australian Labor Party, of course, has lasted in a continuous form much longer than any other party growing out of the shearers’ strikes and the industrial unrest of the 1890s. And, for a while, we had really this trilogy, if you like. We had these three, we had the Free Traders, and the Protectionists, and we had the Labor Party growing in strength and, in time, attracting people from the other two groups.
Of course, that didn’t last long. And, by about the end of the first decade of Federation, there was a fusion between the Free Traders and the Protectionists that gave birth to the first commonwealth Liberal Party, made up of those two elements. And, that continued until the first great split in the Labor Party, over the issue of conscription in 1917. When, William Morris Hughes – certainly one of Australia’s most colourful prime ministers – Billy Hughes started off in federal parliament in 1901, representing the Balmain District of Sydney on behalf of the Labor Party. When he died in 1952, having served in federal parliament for 51 years, he represented the Federal Division of Bradfield on the North Shore of Sydney. Which, of course, was about the safest Liberal seat in Australia at that particular time.
Somebody remarked to him, ‘Billy, you’ve had a very flexible political life. You belong to every party except the Country Party.’ And, he famously retorted, ‘Brother, you gotta draw the line somewhere.’ Now, I say that with enormous playful affection, because one of the things I was very proud of in the time that I was prime minister was my very close, almost paternal, association with the National Party, the successor today of the Country Party.
But, in 1917, Billy Hughes took a sizeable chunk, the Parliamentary Labor Party out of the Labor Party, because the majority of the Labor Party opposed him on conscription. And he joined with the then-Opposition Commonwealth Liberal Party, to form the Nationalist Party. That continued, and then in 1931, there was a further split in the Labor Party. Joe Lyons who’d been the Premier of Tasmania, and Commonwealth Treasurer, he left the Labor Party over their economic policy in the Great Depression, and joined the opposition party. And they formed the United Australia Party. The United Australia Party was the last of the major non-Labor parties before the Liberal Party in 1944. It was formed by Menzies. He brought together disparate groups, didn’t include the Country Party. It retained its separate existence since its formation in 1920.
It was a remarkable achievement by Menzies, because there are a lot of bitter divisions. There’d been a lot of concern about the influence of organised business groups, as distinct from individual businessmen and –women on the United Australia Party. And, he faced a very difficult task, because he was immediately against a man, in John Curtin, who’d proved to be a very formidable leader in wartime, and had won a huge victory in 1943. It was one of the most successful Labor Party election victories since the Federation. And he had a very big majority. But Menzies put together a party that was better organised. And it was based on, I think, a broader understanding of what people on the non-Labor side of politics wanted.
Now, I’ve often been asked to describe the character of the Liberal Party that I was privileged to lead, in total, for a period of 16 years. I’ve described it frequently as a broad church. And, I said that very deliberately, because the Liberal Party, historically, has been made up people who are – some of them what you would call classical Liberals. In other words, they have a very big focus on the freedom of the individual. They have a very strong commitment to private enterprise. They tend to oppose the influence of collectivism, which makes them suspicious of any overweening influence in our society of trade unions. And, they are also people who believe, very much, in the maximum amount of individual choice in one’s life, and in the national life.
The Liberal Party is also embraced by people who are, by their natural instincts, conservative. Most people I know who ran themselves as conservative, tend to support the Liberal side of politics. They call themselves conservatives. Now, one of the difficulties with these sorts of discussions is that nomenclature can vary from individual to individual, and from country to country. If you use the word ‘liberal’ in the United States, of course, you’re talking about the Democratic side of politics. You’re talking about the people who historically, in the United States, have supported the Democratic Party. And, in many respects, are as similar as you can be to people who historically supported the Labor side of politics in Australia.
I’ve often been asked to describe the best I can the difference between American politics and Australian politics. Well, it’s very hard, because everything in America is a few degrees different. A few degrees, if I can loosely say to the right, from what is in America. The best I can, than it is in Australia, the best I can define it is to say that, if you vote Labor in Australia, you’re very unlikely to vote Republican in the United States. But, some people who vote Liberal in Australia, although most of them would vote Republican, quite a number of them would vote for the Democratic Party. That’s as good a description as I can give, and it suggests a number of things. It suggests, for example, that the influence of the organised union movement in the United States, which has never been as powerful as it historically been in Australia – it has always gone to the Democratic Party, but it hasn’t had the same controlling influence as it has had on the Australian Labor Party.
So, it is a very broad church. I described myself, quite unashamedly, when I was prime minister, because it represented my beliefs. And I always took the view that when you hold high political office, people should know what you believe in. People ask me what’s important about political leadership. Well, the most important thing of all is to tell people what you believe in. I’ve encountered many people who would say, ‘I can’t stand John Howard.’ There were plenty of Australians who fell into that category, and still do. Now, I understand that, that’s the nature of political combat. But, I never minded them saying afterwards, ‘Even though I can’t stand for him, I know what he stands for.’ I think that is very, very important.
I’ve regarded myself as a Social Conservative, and an Economic Liberal. Now, my economic liberalism derived from the fact that I believe very strongly in free enterprise. I believed in freeing the labour market, I believed in open trade. And, I believed in as far as was possible, government not being too big. But, large enough to care for those in our community, who through no fault of their own need help.
One of the good things that Australia has done – and when you wander through the Museum, you remind yourself of the good thing Australia has done – I that, I think that we have developed a welfare system in this country, which strikes a good balance between the sometimes indifference and harshness of the American welfare system, compared with the over-patronizing, over-interventionist, too expensive-welfare system of many European countries.
I think we’ve got something in the middle. And, I’m very happy and ready to say, that contributions towards developing that have been made by both sides of politics in Australia. I thought some of the reforms that were carried out during the period of the Hawke Government by Brian Howe, when he was Minister for Social Security, were very sensible. I think many of the reforms that my government carried out, particularly in relation to moving people from welfare into work, also provided that balance. I think any country that aspires to be fair and compassionate, ought to try and do that.
That has always been my conception. Now, obviously, political parties change. When I had the opportunity to write a book, essentially, about Robert Menzies’ period as prime minister, I called it The Menzies Era. What I discovered, I’d always suspected it as I researched more and more, was that in the 20 or so years that followed the election of the Menzies Government in Australia in 1949, essentially the 20 or 25 years after the end of World War II, there was really a consensus – although it was never admitted – on both sides of politics about economic policy. Menzies, who’d I’d admired enormously, believed very passionately in the centralised wage fixing system that originally came out of the famous Harvester judgement , which I saw something about in the Museum. And, it is one of the defining moments, which we’ll talk about in a few moments.
He was also a person who very strongly supported tariff protection. He was somebody who believed in governments owning a certain number of business enterprises. And, he didn’t argue all that strongly, from my research, about fundamental changes and reforms to the Australian taxation system.
Now, you might think, when you hear that, see that’s a bit odd, given that what some of the things that my government and other Liberal iterations have done since. But, there’s a reason for it. The reason for it was that it seemed to work at the time. Through that 20-year period, we had very low unemployment. When Gough Whitlam was elected prime minister in 1972, unemployment in Australia was below two per cent. It was about one-and-a-half percent. We had very, very long periods of full employment. You can’t get it any fuller than one or two per cent. I think, probably, in today’s circumstances, four or five per cent is getting very close to full employment.
So, when something works, people tend to leave it as it is. Now, that was a world that was very different from the world that we inherited, began to experience, rather, in the early 1970s when the oil-producing countries quadrupled oil prices. When the Nixon administration abandoned the old fix exchange rate mechanism, and the American dollar was floated, there was an enormous economic upheaval around the world. That meant that the world, and the governance of countries like Australia, had to alter. That helps to explain – not that there was any fundamental difference between the attitude such as Menzies, and many of the attitudes that I, and many of my senior colleagues who helped me in government had. But, you have to change according to circumstances.
It’s very important that all sides of politics in Australia not only nurture and propagate their own values, and their own traditions. One of the reasons why I chose, after my defeat in 2007, to write a book, not only about my own political experience, but also later about the Menzies period, was my belief that the side of politics that I came from had not been as active as our political opponents in blowing our own trumpet, and talking about the things that we had achieved.
I’m very happy to say that in my discussions about the Howard Library, and I warmly thank Tom Frame and the University of New South Wales, through its aid for iteration here in Canberra, for the assistance. That we have had some very fruitful and respectful discussions, with amongst others, the people who run the Whitlam Institute in the University of Western Sydney. And, John Faulkner, who in earlier guises was something of an opponent of mine when he was in the Senate, and a key figure in the Labor Party in the Senate. We both have an enormous interest in the history of Australia, and, there’s no reason why there can’t be a sharing of those experiences.
To understand the history and experience of the Labor Party is very useful for a Liberal. And, to understand the history and experience of the Liberal Party is very important for somebody who aspires to have an influence on the Labor side of politics. So, bringing all of that together, you’re left with, in relation to liberalism in Australia, our own Australian variety of liberalism. The word ‘Liberal’ was chosen by Menzies, not because, as some people say, he wasn’t conservative. He was very conservative on many things, many, many things. But, he saw the word ‘liberal’ as suggesting that he would lead a party that was in no way reactionary. And a party that didn’t look back all the time, but looked forward to a better, and more prosperous Australia.
He, of course, was informed, but not dominated by his decision making by the liberalism of Britain, the liberalism of people such as Gladstone, and others. But also, it had a particular Australian connotation. Words mean different things, as I said a moment ago, in different parts of the world, and to different people. And, the Australian experience has been that liberalism has embraced the efforts of the most successful, in political terms, the non-Labor Party in Australia’s history. And indeed, since the Liberal Party was formed in 1944, and this is not meant to sound any note of triumphalism, but it is worth noting that it has occupied the treasury benches, by far, the greater period of that time. Now, whether it continues to do so, as always, for any political party, is in the hands of the Australian people.
My friends, they are some of my thoughts about liberalism, it’s produced many significant figures. Alfred Deacon, of course, is seen as the greatest influence on the Liberal side of politics, broadly defined, of the first 25 to 30 years of Australia’s experience. He was very much part of building what was called, later on – wasn’t called it at the time – the Australian Settlement. And that Australian Settlement rested on having high tariffs to keep out foreign goods. It has a certain resonance at the present time in the debate on steel tariffs, introduced or talked about by President Trump. The White Australia policy, centralised wage fixing, and where necessary, government intervention. Now, all of those things were broadly supported across the Australian community at the time.
When I wrote the Menzies book, I found it fascinating to read the debates in federal parliament about the Immigration Restriction Act. What was most interesting was that, although the majority of people were in favour of the White Australia policy – which thankfully this country abandoned in the 1960s, to its great benefit – the debate, across the board, there was support for it. There were many people, even at that time, who argued in a very articulate fashion against it. One of the people whose arguments really hit me in the face when I read those debates was the former Premier of South Australia, Sir John Downer, who was the grandfather of Australia’s longest-serving former minister, and my foreign minister, and close friend, Alexander Downer.
There’s nothing quite like original research, as people of an academic bent in this room, and there would be many, who would be ready to remind me. But, it’s been a great story, liberalism in Australia. Deakin, of course, made an enormous contribution, although in the fullness of time, many of the policies that he espoused, particularly high protection, and a centralised wage fixing industrialization system, the Liberal Party – especially if I may say so, in my time, as either Leader or Deputy Leader – it would abandon. But, of course, the circumstances were different. As the Menzies Era demonstrated, if you encounter a set of political and social circumstances, you have an obligation to embrace policies that accommodate them.
But, can I finish by thanking you all for coming, and thanking the Museum for providing this venue. And to again publicly thank Professor Frame and the University of New South Wales, the partnership I’ve established with them. Also, can I say, it’s great to see the Vice Chancellor of the ANU here today. I was hearing a little about the distressing impact of the flooding on the library at the University. I can’t think of anything quite as heartbreaking for a university, and for scholars, to have a flood, natural event damage original works. They can’t be created if they’re damaged beyond repair. But, I wish that the university well in coping with that unexpected difficulty.
Thank you very much.
TOM FRAME: One of the things that I get to do is to ask Mr Howard questions, the kind of which Richard Carleton would never dream –
JOHN HOWARD: – and Kerry O’Brien!
TOM FRAME: – But, this afternoon, my remit is to talk about Australian history. We’ve already heard that Mr Howard has been shaped, formed, influenced by history – his sense of history, both in the person he’s become, and perhaps in his view of the future, and what it might hold. So, I’m gonna talk just briefly to Mr Howard about what he sees as the defining moments, perhaps, of his life, of our national history. And, to reflect on that in the context of what Mat and his colleagues are trying to do to present that history to, indeed, the Australian people, and the many international visitors to this wonderful institution.
Mr Howard, you were born in July, of 1939. So, what do you recall of the Second World War, and what effect did it have on your outlook on life?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, I remember the end of the Second World War. I think the first recollection I had at the age of three, we had those casement windows with lead lights halfway up the wall. And there was some blackout paper to put over them. That was about the time the apprehended, but not delivered, Japanese air raids on Sydney – because it came not long after the midget submarine episode. I was only about three, three-and-a-half, I remember that.
Yeah, I remember when the war ended. And, for the first and only time in my life, there was a bloke up the road from us who had a very big flagpole. And he put four flags on it. He put the Australian flag, the British flag, the American flag, and the Soviet flag. It was the only time in my life that I saw anybody in our neighbourhood fly the Soviet flag. It was a very, very interesting reminder, of course, that they’d been our ally. And, of course, military historians will tell you that it was the terrible losses of the Russian people, and that 27 million of them died in World War II, that sort of really broke the back of the German onslaught.
TOM FRAME: When were you aware, though, as a boy, that what you had grown up in, those early years, that that really was a cataclysmic event for the world?
JOHN HOWARD: I don’t think that there was any particular point that, I mean, I started to learn about them. It was talked about, and my father fought in World War I. So, he talked about the war at home, and I was the youngest in a family of four boys. And, we talked about these things into the early ’50s, and the like. And, I just acquired an understanding, but from very early on, it became clear to me that the impact of war on any community is terrible. It was, of course, it was most terrible of all when your country is invaded. You know, apart from the Darwin, and other isolated invasions, it didn’t happen to us. We were spared it. And we were spared the privations of wartime restrictions. Although, there were many – nothing alike what people in other parts of the world had to.
But it became very clear to me that the impact on Australia, the lasting on Australia of World War I was much greater, because the loss of life was probably two to three times greater. The population was much smaller, we had a male population of two-and-a-half million in World War I. And, we lost 60,000, and there was just terrible loss. And, the economic consequences of World War I; we borrowed, and we had to repay. We were in a really, never fully recovered from that. Then, not long afterwards, the early ’30s, the Depression hit.
Now, World War II had a terrible impact on a lot of people, particularly those who lost loved ones. I’m not playing it down, it’s just if you look at the two, the impact of World War I, economically and socially, was probably much greater. But, that was true of many other countries. I mean, it was certainly true of France, and others.
TOM FRAME: When you were a teenager, and beginning to study Australian history, what did you think were the defining moments of Australian history of the years before you were born? The things that you were learning about, the influence factors that shaped who we were? What did –
JOHN HOWARD: Well, well, well, obviously, the Federation of Australia. The fact that the colonies came together and formed a nation in a free, open fashion. Albeit a little reluctantly in the case of some of our friends in the west, if it hadn’t been for all those Victorians working on the goldfields – the early returns from Perth were not encouraging. But, when the goldfields came in, it lifted. Which, was very good, thank heavens.
MAT TRINCA: We’ve always been –
JOHN HOWARD: I know you have. And, it was that you tried again in 1931.
TOM FRAME: There’s an effort [by Western Australia] to break away –
JOHN HOWARD: No. You know one of the interesting stories about that secession referendum in 1931, was that John Lyons, who was then the prime minister, went to Perth to campaign against secession. And, such was the apprehension of distance in Australia at the time, that he decided while he was there, that he would appoint an acting prime minister. Because, he was separated from the seat of government, and he appointed John Latham, as he later become, Chief Justice, as the acting prime minister. But, that was a defining moment. And, obviously World War I, and obviously the Great Depression. And, of course, obviously the bodyline tour of Australia in 1932–33, had, was quite a moment –
TOM FRAME: Did your Dad speak about that when you were a boy?
JOHN HOWARD: Yes, yes. Yes, he did. He did mention it. But, he wasn’t all that acrimonied, but I was reminded of the significance of it, because we were a cricket-loving family. I mean, I saw those as hugely important events, but of course, the whole world was effected by World War I and the Great Depression. The Depression hurt Australia enormously, the prolonged unemployment. And I don’t think we, still to this day, understand just how much of an impact it did have. And, in some parts, some estimations, it had a greater impact on Australia than it did on some European countries.
TOM FRAME: What about appliances, and things around the home that affected the Howard family? So, outside toilets, refrigerators, television, washing machine, what –
JOHN HOWARD: Well, well, we didn’t get television until the mid-1950s. In 1956 was the first time television was worked in Australia.
TOM FRAME: Was your family the first on the street to get the box?
JOHN HOWARD: No, it wasn’t actually, because no, no, we were actually quite slow, although my father had died in the year before. I think if he’d still been – my Dad was great for buying new appliances. I remember him buying pop-up toasters, and things like that, we had all the new refrigerators. But, I think those sorts of things, like the rest of the country, many Australians, in the early years after World War II would go and see American movies. They’d see television sets, and they’d see appliances that looked far more contemporary, far more modern. And, they’d see white telephones and things like that.
I think that five or 10 years after World War II, many Australians felt they can’t be falling behind America, because everything, all the movies were American. There were a few British ones, but not many. And, it was before the renaissance of the Australian film industry. But then, once we started to catch up in the middle-1950s, people quickly dropped off the idea that Americans were far better off. Because, they started to worry about some of the social tensions that existed in the United States that didn’t, to a large extent, exist in Australia.
TOM FRAME: And, the swinging 1960s, how did John Howard swing?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don’t know. I wouldn’t claim any particular expertise at that. But, I was overseas for a year or two of that period, but we all went through social changes.
TOM FRAME: What was defining, though, in the ’60s for you? One thing that you thought that there was before and after, when this thing happened. Was it an assassination in the US?
JOHN HOWARD: Ah look, obviously, I remember Kennedy’s assassination vividly. But, I think, you have to be careful that you don’t attribute to a traumatic, terrible event, an influence that is greater. Now, clearly the attack on Washington and New York in September of 2001 had a greater lasting impact than Kennedy’s assassination. Kennedy’s assassination was a poignant, heartbreaking national tragedy, because he was a young man, relatively speaking. He was only, what, 45 when he was murdered. It must have had a terrible impact on the American people. That here was this fellow who was, he had his style, and that had an appeal. And, people felt he gave them a lot of hope and optimism. And he was murdered. It must have led to them questioning the nature of their society.
TOM FRAME: And the war in Vietnam, had an effect on you?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, and the war in Vietnam, that’s something that, when the Vietnam War first broke on Australia in the 1960s, and we got involved, it had very strong support. In 1966, when Harold Holt was ranged against Arthur Calwell, Holt had an enormous victory. And, as time went by – particularly after Lyndon Johnson decided to quit because, essentially the Vietnam War, he’d lost the support of his own party, and he didn’t renominate – support for the war began to drift, because it had a very unhappy ending. And because of the hostility to President Nixon, understandably, due to Watergate, the American Congress decided to withdraw any support for the South Vietnamese. I think that’s a debate we can indulge in for a very long time. The longest chapter in my book on Menzies was on the Vietnam War, because it divided Australia.
TOM FRAME: Did that surprise you?
JOHN HOWARD: No, because these things happen over a period of time. You don’t sort of go to bed one night with 52 per cent being in favour of something, and you wake up the next morning and that’s gone down to 42 per cent. It doesn’t work like that, it’s something that occurs over a period of time. But it divided the United States. It was a far more traumatic event for the United States. But, it divided our country, too, and I understand that. I supported the involvement. I wrote in the Menzies book that people would say to me, ‘Do you think Menzies was right, sending our troops to Vietnam?’ I said, ‘Well, all I can say is, that if I had been in his place back in 1965, and in possession with the assessments that existed then, I’d taken the same decision.’
You can never really say, ‘Do you think, now, that was right?’, because your response to that is conditioned by the knowledge you have subsequently acquired. You can –
TOM FRAME: You can say then, the same was true of your attitude towards 2003.
JOHN HOWARD: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. You mean Iraq?
TOM FRAME: Yes.
JOHN HOWARD: Oh, yes. Yes.
TOM FRAME: Are they similar in any ways in terms of the reaction of the people, and the division of the country?
JOHN HOWARD: No. They’re not different, because from the very beginning, in Australia, the idea of involvement in Iraq, alongside the Americans, and the British, and some other contributions, it was never without a further United Nations resolution. It was never particularly popular.
TOM FRAME: How much can Australia be in charge of its own destiny, when we think of things like trade markets, commodity prices, labour costs, cultural influences? You talked about the differences between Menzies’ attitude and your own. To what extent is Australia, as the small country in population, though, really able to shape its national life? How do you see history in forming that conversation?
JOHN HOWARD: Oh, you’re gonna have an enormous influence. Yeah, there are world trends that you can’t avoid. We were the beneficiary of the post-World War II economic boom. Also, the fact that our wage rates were not exposed to a lot of competition from countries in Asia, which had only then begun to emerge. Of course, we were influenced by world events. And, if you get involved in a war, you can’t avoid the consequences of that.
But, there are a lot of other things. I mean, we can decide what sort of immigration we had. We took a decision in the 1960s to end the White Australia Policy, and it was the right decision to take. That’s a policy that we’d had for many, many years. It was based on a combination of attitudes, and job protection. It was a genuine belief, to a lot of people in Australia at the time of the Federation, that their jobs depended on not importing what they saw as cheap labour. There was also an element of racial superiority involved in it, no doubt about that. But, there were a combination of a lot of things, but we decided to change that. And, I think that’s been very beneficial. After the end of the wars in Indochina, Australia on a per capita basis, probably took more Vietnamese than any other country.
We can also, in coming to my time – and I don’t avoid the discussion – take a stand in relation to who comes to Australia. And, I think, the history of other countries since 2001 has vindicated the stance that my government took. It was controversial, and I’m sure not many people in this room who would have disagreed, and continue to disagree with it. I respect that fact, but the reality is that no country will accept a level of immigration that threatens to alter the character of their country, they just won’t. We’ve seen what’s happened in Germany, we’ve seen where Angela Merkel’s political position has been greatly weakened by her miscalculated belief that an unlimited number would be accepted. You can’t do that. You’ve gotta control the overall character and culture of your country.
I am not an enormous fan of theoretical multiculturalism, I’m a fan of multiracialism. I’m a fan of bringing people from all parts of the world, but once they’re here you live behind a common set of Australian values. I think there’s a host culture in any country, and people who come to the country should absorb that. You can debate what it is, but –
TOM FRAME: And that, one of the Museum’s major things is looking at the way at those who’ve come to these shores have had influence on what people have experienced more broadly. What other challenge you have found in telling that story here at the Museum?
MAT TRINCA: I think the challenge is always about finding the space and the opportunity to tell the story that’s real breadth. I mean, my own family is part of the story of 20th century migration to this country before the war, in fact, in the ’20s and ’30s. And clearly, the postwar migration flow from around the world has been central to the way Australia has imagined itself over the last 50 or 60 years. Now, as Mr Howard rightly points out, I think we’ve drawn great strength from that.
I’m a fan, not of trying to pursue all the different characters of that down every national [inaudible]. It’s, you know, it’s a road to perdition to try and imagine that you can provide emblems for every single constituent community in Australian life, in what the Museum does. But, you can speak about the value of it, you can speak about the key moments, in fact, the way that Mr Howard has, that have been part of the making of modern Australia, through the accepting embracing of people from around the world. And, I hope we do that.
TOM FRAME: You were born in the ’60s. In the last 20, or the first 20 years of your life, what was defining for you? The war, plainly, for Mr Howard, and having echos of the Depression. But what was it for you, born in the ’60s, those defining moments? ’70s, ’80s, or perhaps even they don’t happen ’til the ’90s.
MAT TRINCA: The function of having ended up as an historian, that I don’t limit myself to my own age, thankfully. I mean, I’m a bit like Mr Howard, in fact – I think Federation was extraordinary. You know, the idea that those colonies came together. Even the recalcitrant types in the west, who had to be convinced, and in fact, don’t even appear on the act. They just allowed for the possibility that Western Australia will join Federation. Thankfully, we did. I have to say, I want to nail my colours to the mast there.
I do think that was an extraordinary moment. Not just in our history, but in a sense, a history that had resonances around the world. I mean, Mr Howard was talking this morning about how Australia was leading the world, in the way that it gave women the vote in the colonies, and then in the commonwealth. And, that’s true. This is one of the oldest democracies in the world, successful, calm, generally peaceable, and interested in the advance of all its peoples. And the way that, I think, Mr Howard spoke of that eloquently in terms of the Australian Settlement, there has been a middle road that Australia has largely trod. And I do think, that the great discussion between Labor, Labor-ism if you like, and liberalism, in our tradition, has been at the very core of that.
TOM FRAME: But is, our dislike for hubris mean that we don’t tell the story with as much colour, and perhaps enthusiasm, as otherwise we might?
MAT TRINCA: I think that’s true. Australians often bemoan the fact that they have no history. Well, they’ve got an extraordinary history, the history of the first peoples of the land, the wonder of making this modern nation and its myriad achievements. I think we tend to self-criticism. And, while introspection and reflection on how we might be better is important for all of us, you know, I’m always struck by the fact that when I’m outside the borders of Australia, certainly in the region, they’re fascinated about Australia, and the successes of Australia. Through China, Southeast Asia, Japan. I’m always quizzed about how we’ve managed it, and not so much about what is wrong.
TOM FRAME: Mr Howard, is that what prompted you to have a civics program, and a history summit, and all of those things? Was it that Australian History was being taught badly, or perhaps just not at all?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, a combination of both. And, I wonder, I mean, this is a very well-informed audience. I just wonder what per cent of you are aware that we had, women had the full franchise in parts of this country, well ahead of it in the United States and Great Britain. It wasn’t until 1928 that in the United Kingdom, that women had the same voting rights as men. And, it wasn’t until after the First World War that women had the same voting rights as men in the United States. Now, I don’t think many Australians under the age of 30 would be aware of that, they say, ‘So what, I’m not interested’. Well, I think they’re the sort of things that we have failed to educate ourselves about. We were a long way ahead the rest of the world in some of the democratic practises. I think we do have this tendency not to point to the successes of our past.
The secret ballot was an Australian invention. I’ve mentioned votes for women; we adopted the constitution after a full referendum. We more directly consulted the Australian people about our constitution, than the Americans did all of the American people. It was adopted by congress, elected by the people.
So, we’ve got quite a good story. Yeah, there are bad things, as well. I’m not pretending otherwise. But I do think we’ve been remiss in telling the story as it happened, and what and all, is very important. And, I’ll just say one other thing. I think, the particular genius of this country, I thought this for decades, is that we have a great sense of balance. I mentioned welfare system, I think we’ve got a good balance there. That’s not perfect, but it’s not as harsh as the American can be. And, it’s not as paternalistic as the European.
Take, when we think about our history, I mean, obviously the British influence in Australia is enormous. What’s been good about us is that we’ve taken the good bits. We’ve taken the parliamentary democracy, and the rule of law, and the free speech. And, broadly speaking, the sense of humour. But, we haven’t taken the bad bits. We haven’t taken the class distinctions, and some of the snobbery, and aristocracy, and so forth.
So, we’ve been quite astute. You can see that sense of balance in Australian society in so many departments. You take our health system, okay, it’s got a lot of flaws. But, name me a health system anywhere in the world that’s better. Gee whiz, I don’t think the National Health System, much in all as our British friends lauded it, and paraded it at the London Olympics, and everything, I wouldn’t put it ahead of ours. And, don’t get sick in America, unless you got a lot of money.
TOM FRAME: I’ll take that on advice, Mr Howard.
When people look back, what will they say as the defining moment, or moments, of the period between March of 1996 and November of 2007? What are they most likely to say is the defining moment of that period?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, for those who never liked me, November the 24th, 2007, when I got voted out of office, they cheered that night and celebrated long and hard. Look, I just – by chance – I think people, I hope people will remember the response to Port Arthur – I was very proud of that, and it did have strong support. And it was a hard decision for some of my National Party colleagues, because many people in rural areas felt they were being victimised because of the criminality of another person. I would like them to think that we, despite the controversy, we did the right thing in 2001.
As I said, we would decide who came to this country, and the circumstances in which they came. I think people did support that. I’d like them to remember that we tried to boost the Australian economy with a wide range of reforms, such as taxation reform, and industrial relations reform. We didn’t get a lot of help from others at the time, but I won’t dwell on that. But, there are things that we remember. Also, those who care about, and most do, about the defence of this country, that we invested a lot of extra resources into our defence and intelligence services.
TOM FRAME: Mat, just to finish, final comment for you. How do we define a defining moment?
MAT TRINCA: I think, in the way of these things, it’s good not to. In this sense, that I think, maybe the phrase is, take a common-sense view of it. Because what I take from what Mr Howard has just said about the particular genius of Australian society, is that, generally, when we’ve looked to solve issues that have perplexed us, and challenged us in our story, we’ve tended to the common-sense view. Not always, not perfectly, not without its problems. But, I think, Paul Kelly might call it pragmatism. You know, there’s a kind of pragmatic will in Australia.
So, I advocate a common-sense view of defining moments. And, that is, don’t get too hung up on the particular moment – discuss the particular form that you can see emerge out of a set of circumstances, or interests in Australia, and what effect that had, and how we regard it. At the very least, discuss and argue about your history. Because, it seems to me that it’s something of hackneyed phrase – historians always say, ‘To know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been’. I do really think that works for us as individuals, we know that’s true. And, it works for the collective.
I think, joining the discussion about defining moments, not worrying too much about whether it’s an event, or a moment, or a force. You know, it’s important to have a conversation. That’s the intent of the program, and I must say, is evidenced by the sorts of things Mr Howard has said today.
TOM FRAME: Well Mat, warm congratulations to you and your team for creating an inquiring mood here at the Museum. It is a wonderful Australian institution. It’s someplace that we can bring visitors to and feel proud. Would you please join with me in thanking Mat and Mr Howard for the discussion.
MAT TRINCA: I’ll be brief, because I know that we’re all waiting for our lunch. But, can I just once again thank Professor Tom Frame, and the Honourable John Howard, the former Prime Minister of Australia, who has joined us today.
Frankly, Mr Howard, any time that you want to make suggestions to me as we wander through the Museum, I’m more than happy to receive them and to take notes. In fact, about your thoughts in that matter, I do think that your arguments about the place of liberalism as a tradition in Australian life, at the very core of Australian society are well made. It is true that the Labor side of politics has been very good at chronicling its efforts over a hundred years or so. And, I do feel, I do feel that the story of the liberal conservative traditional in this country is one that needs to be strongly engaged with and communicated. And, that’s probably a suggestion to you to keep writing, Mr Howard. Because, your efforts in that regard, I think, have done much to encourage others to look at the tenures of those governments over the course of the last hundred years.
So, thank you. And, thank you once again for joining us today. And, thank all of you for this opportunity, really, to talk about what matters in our past. Can I leave you with the encouragement to join the discussion about what matters to us, and what’s defining in our history?
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018