Think of him as the Tea Partier from Down Under. John Howard, the second-longest-serving prime minister in Australian history and leader of the Liberal (in American terms, read Conservative) party to victory in four successive elections, was the son of an independent-filling-station owner in a Sydney suburb. One day, the local government council demanded that Lyall Howard move his pumps from the roadside to make room for a traffic light. The move ruined Howard’s business. The light wasn’t installed for a decade.
“This incident reinforced the feeling in my family that governments, generally speaking, weren’t all that sympathetic to small business,” John Howard writes in his autobiography. “Big companies could look after themselves and unions were strong, but the little bloke got squeezed.”
It was his Obamacare moment. John Howard would dedicate his political career to keeping people like his parents — hardworking, religious, committed to traditional values — on the radar screen of Australian politics, and the focus of conservative economic and fiscal policies. It has made him deeply unpopular with his country’s intelligentsia. It also made him Australia’s dominant political figure of the past quarter century. It’s a record Ronald Reagan might have envied, and one that GOP politicians might emulate today.
The gas-pump fiasco was John Howard’s first important political lesson. The Vietnam War was the second, when he became involved in politics in the early 1970s. Americans tend to forget that Australia was our staunchest ally in that ill-starred war. More than 61,000 Australians served and 2,900 were killed or wounded. Howard saw support for America and fighting Communism as matters of honor as well as of defending freedom — an attitude that subsequently made him one of our strongest supporters in the Iraq War and the broader War on Terror.
Back in 1972, Australian Labor-party leader Gough Whitlam used opposition to the Vietnam War to propel himself into the premiership; in that post, he instituted the most sweeping left-wing agenda in Australian history. Universal health care, an end to the draft and capital punishment, recognition of North Vietnam and Red China, and free legal aid were only a few of Whitlam’s radical changes. An economic ignoramus, he sent government deficits soaring when the economy stalled out and, most disastrously, tried to peg wage increases in private industry to wages in the public sector in order to curry favor with Australia’s powerful unions. Finally, in 1975, Australia’s governor general had to intervene and strip Whitlam of his office. What was left was a country with 14.4 percent inflation, rising unemployment — and an opportunity for some fresh economic thinking.
In 1977, John Howard was a free marketer, even though Australian politicians, notably including his own party’s leader, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, were — like politicians most everywhere at the time — “all Keynesians now.” That year he became Fraser’s treasurer, and pushed cuts in public spending and a rollback of union power. This Thatcherite agenda was undercut by Fraser’s insistence on tax increases to balance the budget. When those increases delayed full economic recovery, Labor came back in. But Howard’s stab at free-market reform had proved effective and popular enough that Labor’s new leaders — including their chief, Bob Hawke — had to assume a Clintonian mask of fiscal discipline and free-market reform in order to stay in office.
In 1985, Howard was chosen as leader of the opposition Liberals. His account of the intra-party bickering that led to his downfall as party leader four years later makes slow reading for the non-Australian. Nonetheless, in 1995 the Liberals turned back to Howard to lead them out of the wilderness. Their moment came in 1996, when Howard handed Labor the second-worst defeat of an incumbent government since Australia became a federation in 1901. And his performance, once in office, is rich in lessons.
How does a politician govern conservatively in the face of a leftist intelligentsia and media? The most important thing is to stick to your principles. “The goal . . . was to remove . . . the speed limits on the growth of the Australian economy,” Howard writes — and to do so by rolling back regulations and “growing the supply-side factors that are fundamental to our productive capacity.” With the help of his treasurer, Peter Costello, he slashed government spending, privatized industries (such as the communications giant Telstra), and forced Australia’s labor unions to accept firm limits on the growth of wages and pensions. He refused to publicly apologize for Australia’s treatment of its aboriginal population, as the political-correctness squad demanded. Howard believed (rightly) that economic growth was the best basis for racial healing. He got extra help by expanding trade with a growing China, hungry for Australia’s raw materials. The result was 20 years of uninterrupted economic growth.
#page#Also important: Remind people of your successes. Thanks to Howard and Costello, Australia is today one of the freest economies in the world. It is not only one of the lowest taxed, but one of the lowest in terms of the inequality of income and wealth. Many credit this to Howard’s Goods and Services Tax, implemented in 2000, which followed a major tax overhaul involving deep cuts in taxes on income, wholesale transactions, banking, and some fuel sales — combined with rigorous means-testing for government social-welfare programs. Others credit Australia’s burgeoning export trade during the Howard years, from iron and coal to wheat and wool; it is today worth $90 billion more than all the trade between the United States and Japan. What some worry about as a surrender of sovereignty Howard sees as an example of free trade lifting all boats — but also a valuable lesson in how to remain a partner rather than a vassal of the Chinese dragon.
Value-added taxes are not popular in Washington at this moment, and for good reason. Still, Howard’s achievement shouldn’t be overlooked — especially because of what hasn’t happened in Australia: no bursting real-estate bubble; no banking crisis or financial meltdown; above all, no imploding welfare state or deficit avalanche.
You would think this would be enough to qualify John Howard as Australia’s Ronald Reagan. But he also managed to put Australia back in its rightful place on the world stage. The first act came in 1999, when Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove and Australian troops led a U.N.-backed force into East Timor to support its independence from Indonesia. It was a watershed moment for the Australian military, by every measure one of the best and most professional in the world. After Vietnam it had largely retreated into the shell of home defense, including exercises denying imaginary foes access to the Great Sandy Desert. East Timor made it once again an effective expeditionary force, with a mission that has been described by Australian military expert Michael Evans as follows: “as political as possible and as military as necessary.” That’s a good motto in the age of counterinsurgency.
The second came with Australia’s 9/11, the al-Qaeda bombing in Bali that killed 88 Australians (in proportion to the population, the equivalent of 1,200 Americans today). Howard was a witness to our own 9/11, and describes being in Washington on the day Flight 77 struck the Pentagon. The Bali bombing only confirmed his insight at the time — that the most important struggle of the 21st century would be the fight against Islamic terrorism and its allies. He would stoutly back Bush in Afghanistan, and in the invasion of Iraq, sending 2,000 Australian troops there.
If Australia’s contribution to the Iraq War is small in numbers, it is vast in strategic significance. Australia is steadily emerging as our next strong partner in the Anglosphere, and the ties between Canberra and Washington as the new Special Relationship, as the old one with Britain seems destined to shrivel away.
Even more remarkably, Howard brought about a sharp rightward shift in the domestic public debate. His Labor rival Kevin Rudd discovered this after defeating Howard in a contentious election in 2007, and then trying to implement an ambitious cap-and-trade scheme in obeisance to the global-warming orthodoxy. Public opinion not only defeated the bill; it forced Rudd to step down. Now the government of New South Wales, probably the most progressive in the country, is leasing its offshore waters for natural-gas drilling.
Who knows? The 112th Congress could do worse than to adopt an Australophile position. Maybe there is room in its political menagerie for a kangaroo as well as the elephant.
– Mr. Herman is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book, Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.