Howard on Q&A — 1


Kerry Leishman’s illustration for Peter Costello’s rebuttal of Howard on the leadership issue. (Linked to source)

First I should say this was an excellent episode of Q&A and second that John Howard did handle the situation very well. That said, as I noted yesterday, he was somewhat less than straight in some of his responses. Peter Costello argues trenchantly that this is so in his Sydney Morning Herald piece today.

…A true leader can rejoice in the success of those around him. He does not need to demean their achievements and blame them for his own miscalculation.

And all these tricky gymnastics about whether he was or wasn’t going to go. When is a promise not a promise? When is a deal not a deal? It was all just a distraction from what I belatedly realised: John Howard was never going to stand aside for anyone. He never had and he never would.

This might have been the right thing, according to his family. But that was not the point. The point was whether he did the right thing by those MPs who would go on to lose their seats in the 2007 election. Some of them have never had a job since. And more, the point is whether he did the best thing for the Liberal Party and the best thing for the country?

If you happen to believe, as I do, that we have had a bad government for the last three years, you realise how important it was for the Coalition, in 2007, to do everything it could to renew itself and extend its term in government.

The failure to do so was not in the interest of the nation or its people. I cannot take the credit for that. The principal credit for that failure must go to the person who was responsible. It belongs squarely to John Howard.

Unfortunately there were other examples of tricky gymnastics last night.

As Costello says:

The essence of Stone’s complaint was that the government was seen as ”mean and tricky”. The charge was principally directed at me. But as the years wore on the description was more frequently levelled at Howard. On the night of the 1998 election, having survived by a whisker, Howard said he would commit himself ”very genuinely to the case of true reconciliation”.

When there was a genuine spirit of goodwill about Aboriginal reconciliation in 2000 it would not have hurt to embrace it and walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It didn’t mean you agreed with every demand every person walking that day wanted to make. It would have shown a generosity of spirit.

On Q&A Howard says:

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don’t know that I cut my teeth in politics at the time. When I entered parliament in 1974 it had – seven years had passed since a Liberal Prime Minister, Harold Holt – I repeat a Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt – had abolished the White Australia Policy. I don’t think – I mean, look, I am a creature of my generation and my age. I grew up when the White Australia Policy operated. I thought it was wrong and I was glad when it disappeared and I think this country is better as a consequence but, look, I mean people can throw these slogans around and they can say something is racist. I mean, I don’t think my government’s policies were in any way racist. If you talk about Indigenous policies, well, the most dramatic thing we did in Indigenous policy was the Northern Territory intervention in 2007, which overturned 30 years of failed policy of separate development and I think that intervention was in the name of protecting children and giving them the most basic of all rights, and that is a right to childlike innocence and a right to protection against abuse. I didn’t think that was racist. I thought it was humane.
TONY JONES: Our next question is also on Indigenous policy or at least an aspect of it, and it comes from John Harding-Easson.
JOHN HARDING-EASSON: Mr Howard, you always advocated practical measures such as that with the NT intervention but given the positive response to the apology by your successor, do you now accept that that symbolism, which cost so little to the rest of the Australian community and yet meant so much to Indigenous Australians, was something you should have done?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, look, I accept that a lot of people felt that way. I haven’t altered my view. I hold the view that the  only genuine apology that can ever be given is by the original perpetrator of what was allegedly wrongly done and that’s just my simply position and you’ve also…

Howard’s failure of imagination on the question of reconciliation appalled me at the time and still does. Leaving aside for the moment whether the Intervention was all Howard claimed, he is rather making the most of it; after all from 1996 to 2007 his government did bugger all, relatively speaking, about Aboriginal issues.

Yet I agree with Howard’s objection to the word “racist”, and believe that also holds, on reflection, in the matter of their immigration and refugee policies, much as I disagreed with most of what they did and Gillard continues to do. But that is matter for another post.

On David Hicks he slides over the real issue: for more on what the real issue may be see Hicks v Howard by Bruce Haigh and Kellie Tranter.

Whether or not you believe David Hicks’ version of his own story is irrelevant. Since 2001 the low brow focus on whether or not ‘Hicks had it coming’ has successfully diverted attention away from fundamental issues of legal and political importance. It’s been so effective, in fact, that it enabled Howard, Downer and Ruddock to disregard the ideas behind habeas corpus (an ancient common law prerogative writ), rules of law and of due process, and four Geneva Conventions. The end result – an unprecedented abuse of public office to the detriment of an Australian citizen – is unforgiveable. Such acts of political bastardry will never be seen as the acts of principled leaders, and certainly not of statesmen.

On the Iraq War Howard avoided really dealing with the question; the shoe-thrower shot himself in the foot (um!) by not letting his question do the work and actually helping John Howard out.

PETE GRAY: Thanks, Tony. The recent releases of American military information from Wikileaks show evidence of tens of thousands of civilian casualties as a result of the invasion of Iraq, as well as widespread abuse and torture of prisoners. There were no weapons of mass destruction found. Many people now regard the Iraq war as a strategic failure and think it probably incited more terrorist violence than it stopped. How should you be held accountable for Iraq’s participation – for Australia’s participation in the war of Iraq – war on Iraq? You just said a moment ago that you defend our participation and you leading our country into a war that most Australian’s oppose. How do you defend it?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, I accept responsibility.
PETE GRAY: You accept responsibility?
JOHN HOWARD: I accept responsibility.
PETE GRAY: Would you go to the International Criminal Court…
JOHN HOWARD: No, well, hang on.
PETE GRAY: …and accept responsibility.
JOHN HOWARD: Well, hang on.
TONY JONES: All right. All right.
JOHN HOWARD: Let’s calm down…

TONY JONES: Okay. You’re watching – sorry about that. We’ve got to move on. We’re watching Q&A with the – that’s Q&A special with the former Prime Minister, John Howard.
PETE GRAY: (Indistinct) Sorry, Tony, take it as a comment.
TONY JONES: No. No. No. We’re not going to do that.
PETE GRAY: That’s for the Iraqi (indistinct) and this is for the Iraqi (indistinct).
TONY JONES: Please. Just someone please remove that gentleman. Okay. Well, we apologise…

Tony Jones raised an interesting point which I don’t think Howard handled all that well.

TONY JONES: Mr Howard, one of the interesting things that I read and I do actually have the drop on some of these people, as you say, because I have read the book or most of it. One of the interesting things is the first you hear of action against Iraq – that action against Iraq was likely to be back on the US agenda as a result – was as a result of the September 11 attacks. Now, this is told to you by the Australian ambassador to the US, Michael Thawley, in discussions you had with him immediately after the September 11 attacks on September 11 and September 12. Now, first of all, why did he think the Americans would jump to attacks on Iraq as a result of September 11?

Finally, it appears that John Howard is now a climate change agnostic rather than a climate change sceptic.

Next time the “boat people” and all that…

Update 30 October

I have decided to postpone the second part on immigration policy, but to support Howard, for once, in his claim that his government’s immigration policy was hardly racist I would draw attention to just one example of an increasingly visible result of that policy.

I took that in Alexandria (South Sydney) three months ago. Black African Muslim youth were very thin on the ground in Sydney pre-Howard; not so now.

On climate change Howard refers to the Royal Society:

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I’m a climate agnostic. I’m not an agnostic on other things but I’m a bit of an agnostic. I think there is some evidence – strong evidence that mankind has contributed to the warming process, the extent of which I think is open to a lot of debate. I was very impressed with a recent report I read from the Royal Society which I thought gave a very balanced assessment of the issue. But, look, when we went out of government, once thing I said to my former colleagues is, “Look, you are obviously going to take positions on some issues that are different from what my government did and, you know, feel free to do so. I mean, you can’t be bound to follow exactly everything that the former government did. I mean, there have to be reasons why you lose an election and the idea that you sort of slavishly follow everything that was followed by the former government is not a good idea.

TONY JONES: Are you talking about the emissions trading scheme?

JOHN HOWARD: Yeah, the emissions trading scheme. Yeah. Look…

TONY JONES: Because you brought the first emissions trading scheme (indistinct).

JOHN HOWARD: Yeah, I proposed one but I did propose it and this is the crucial difference between my approach and Mr Rudd’s approach. I did say that we should not try and run ahead of the rest of the world and we should not impose it in circumstances where we would hurt our trade exposed industries. So I think there was a very big difference between my ETS and the one that Mr Rudd was championing but, look, current opposition…

TONY JONES: But even having an ETS suggests you believe there’s a problem that needs to be dealt with.

JOHN HOWARD: Look, I’m not running away from what I proposed in government….

Here is that report. I agree with what Howard says about it, and am rather surprised that he hasn’t yet moved beyond agnosticism on the subject as a result of reading it. Still, give him time…