Memories of John Howard are rose-coloured

Do you really want three more years like the last six?” Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott constantly repeats. Although my answer is no, I have even less desire for three more years like the twelve which preceded the last six.

Abbott likes to hark back to the last time his Liberal/National Coalition were in government, when John Howard was Prime Minister, from 1996-2007. Abbott was one of Howard’s ministers, and emphasizes that many of his Shadow Cabinet have the “experience” of having served in the Howard government. It seems many Australians have rose-coloured memories of the Howard government. If you’re one of them, maybe you’ve forgotten some of Howard’s controversial actions.

The Howard government was obsessed with reaching a budget surplus at any cost. Its first two budgets included $8 billion of spending cuts, and broke several election commitments which Howard described as “non-core promises”. Abbott now claims he has announced the “bulk” of his spending cuts and has backtracked from his policy of guaranteeing a budget surplus in his first term, yet he still intends to commission a budget audit to identify further spending cuts after the election, so “the operations of government can be improved and streamlined while the new government has maximum political capital to make hard decisions”. He claims the budget audit will not cover key policies, but can we trust him?

In opposition Howard promised not to change workers’ superannuation, but in government he did. In opposition Howard promised no funding cuts for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), but in government he did cut its funding. In opposition Howard said he would cut 2,500 government jobs; in his first year of government he cut 30,000. (More recently in Queensland, Liberal National Party leader Campbell Newman promised no public service cuts, then cut 14,000 jobs.) He also partially sold Telstra, despite the fact that most Australians oppose privatizations.

Abbott promises to make no changes to superannuation, not to privatize the ABC or cut its funding, and to cut 12,000 jobs (oh, sorry, I meant a “reduction of 12,000 in the size of the Commonwealth government payroll”). But can we believe him? In the latter case, we already know the 12,000 is actually on top of the Labor government’s existing “efficiency dividend”, and Abbott would need to sack a larger number of public servants in order to achieve the associated budget saving which he promises.

At Kyoto negotiations in 1997, Howard secured a target that would allow Australia to increase its emissions by 8% relative to 1990 by 2008-2012, and also insisted on being allowed to count one-off reductions in LULUCF emissions (land use, land use change, and forestry) as an offset for increasing industrial emissions (despite the reality that the former is far less permanent than the latter). Howard’s domestic climate policy focused on voluntary measures and R&D, which served as excuses to delay carbon pricing and renewable energy deployment. Howard tended to measure progress based on emissions per economic output (which tends to reduce automatically) instead of absolute emissions levels.

Abbott plans to abolish Labor’s carbon price and replace it with an Emissions Reduction Fund that would reward polluting companies who voluntarily reduce their emissions relative to projected business-as-usual growth, similar to Howard’s voluntary programs. Yet a voluntary policy by definition cannot guarantee results, and Abbott plans to again rely mainly on sequestering carbon in the land. The Fund has a strict budget cap, and several recent analyses have found Abbott would need to spend billions more dollars even just to meet Australia’s present inadequate emissions reduction target of 5% below 2000 by 2020. Abbott says the Fund is for “reinforcing what businesses are already doing”, and boasts “Australia has already achieved a reduction in its emissions intensity of nearly 50 per cent over the past 20 years without a carbon tax through direct action policies and businesses taking economically sensible steps to save on power and transport.”

Meanwhile, Howard pursued expansionist fossil fuel energy policies, electricity market deregulation, and population growth, all of which drove emissions upwards. Abbott looks set to take a similar approach, planning to fast-track coal mines, delegate environmental protection powers to the states, “cut red and green tape costs on businesses and community groups by $1 billion per year”, and “build the roads of the 21st century” – all of which can be expected to increase emissions.

Howard took to the 1998 election, then introduced, a great big new Goods and Services Tax (GST), despite having in 1996 insisted that there would “never ever” be a GST. The GST had three times the cost-of-living impact of the carbon tax, and in contrast to the carbon tax it encouraged fossil fuel use. Abbott now says “the GST is not going to change, full stop, end of story”, yet he plans a tax white paper which will include the GST. Why review a tax you’re not going to increase?

By 2001, there were emerging leadership tensions between Howard and his Treasurer Peter Costello. Although Costello never gained the leadership, the dispute would plague the government for the next six years. Today the Liberals insist they are a united team and will not fight amongst each other – but can we believe them?

From 2001, Howard introduced harsh policies in breach of international law to deter asylum seekers arriving on boats, including reinforcing the Keating Labor government’s policy of indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers, processing asylum seekers without visas in Nauru, shrinking the definition of Australia’s migration zone, instructing the Australian Navy to turn boats back, and introducing a system of temporary protection visas. Most aspects of this approach have been borrowed by the present Labor government, and Abbott plans to return to it entirely.

Howard was an uncritical supporter of the US following the election of George W. Bush. Howard aligned Australia with the Bush administration on climate policy, refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and promoting R&D agreements between the most powerful countries as a better solution than UN-agreed binding emissions reduction targets. Similarly, Abbott wants to deprioritize UN climate talks, instead lobbying the US, EU, China,  and India (the “G4”) to negotiate agreements to cut emissions in specific sectors, particularly forestry. Unfortunately, these large emitters are unlikely to have the political will to agree and implement the rapid phaseout of fossil fuels that is urgently required.

Howard was similarly uncritical in following the US into the War in Afghanistan, and then into the Iraq War, in the latter case on false pretences that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Now Abbott claims he would not follow the US into any war in Syria, but can we believe him?

Despite the Liberals presenting themselves as representing the interests of older Australians, in 2003 Howard abolished the Mature Age Allowance. Last year, Abbott’s Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey gave a speech in London saying large welfare systems can no longer be afforded because revenue has decreased (neglecting to mention one reason is that neoliberals like him have insisted on cutting taxes, especially for the rich and big business). In a follow-up interview with the ABC’s Lateline, Hockey refused to specify which welfare a Liberal government would target, but defended subsidies for business and advocated “taking a hard look at the welfare entitlements of the people”. Cutting welfare would make it harder for Australians to cope with the high cost of living that the Liberals have campaigned against.

Despite Abbott recently trying to brand himself as sympathetic to the interests of gay Australians, in 2004 Howard legislated that the definition of marriage was “the union of a man and a woman to exclusion of all others”.

Having earlier introduced a Renewable Energy Target (RET), in 2004 Howard decided it was working too well and sabotaged it by refusing to extend it. Abbott’s Shadow Environment Minister Greg Hunt insists the Liberals won’t similarly sabotage the current RET, yet they will review it. Individual Coalition politicians and state Coalition governments have campaigned against the RET and against wind power. Origin Energy, and at least one Liberal candidate, have campaigned for the RET to be sabotaged by reducing it to account for falling electricity demand, which would effectively halt the deployment of renewables by 2016. There are signs of a rather incestuous relationship between Origin and the Coalition, eg. rumours that an Abbott government might allocate climate funding for a pet project of Origin’s. We already know Abbott plans to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), tear up CEFC contracts already signed, and cut funding for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

Instead of renewables, Howard promoted carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear power as solutions to climate change and poured money into CCS R&D, despite the fact that neither was likely to be deployed at scale in time. In 2006, Howard agreed to sell uranium to India despite it not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Similarly, Abbott’s approach to decarbonizing energy focuses on R&D, his Shadow Energy Minister Ian Macfarlane argues renewable energy technologies are not yet ready for deployment, and Malcolm Turnbull continues to talk up CCS as the central solution to climate change. In reality, we already have the technologies needed to power Australia with 100% renewables, and don’t have time to wait for new technologies.

Throughout most of the Howard government, the Democrats were in balance of power in the Senate, providing a moderating influence on Howard’s legislation. Then at the 2004 election Howard won absolute control of both houses of Parliament and was able to legislate policies which the Democrats had blocked. These included the unpopular WorkChoices which restricted employees’ rights to strike, organize, and collectively bargain; the full sale of Telstra; decreasing restrictions on media ownership; and raising the threshold for disclosure of political donations. And although Abbott claims WorkChoices is “dead, buried, and cremated”, the business lobby is agitating for a return to key aspects of it.

Despite the Liberals’ claim to be defenders of free speech, in 2005 Howard rushed through laws against “sedition”. And despite the Liberals painting Labor as scandal-ridden and themselves as clean, in 2005 it was discovered the Australian Wheat Board had bribed the government of Saddam Hussein.

The Howard government signed free trade agreements with several countries, most importantly the US, yet many Australians are concerned about the impacts of free trade. Of pressing concern today is the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated, in which the US is advocating giving transnational corporations the power to sue governments which introduce policies that harm investment. Labor opposes the proposal, but Abbott’s Shadow Trade Minister Julie Bishop says the Liberals are prepared to negotiate on it.

Howard tried to promote a right-wing view of history in schools, and in his retirement has continued to promote a right-wing view of the present and future, by promoting a book instructing schoolchildren to raise climate change denialist arguments in the classroom. Meanwhile, the Newman government wants to remove climate from the school curriculum.

Abbott plans to turn 1,500 public schools into “independent public schools” with local school boards. I suspect the intention is to make it easier to sneak right-wing propaganda into schools, because that is exactly what has happened with school boards in the US. My suspicion is only reinforced by the fact that Abbott recently re-launched this policy at a Christian school. The school’s “statement of faith” says the Bible is the infallible word of God, the world was created by God as described in Genesis, non-Christians (like me) are inherently “depraved” because of the actions of Adam and Eve, God protects humans from disease, Jesus Christ will soon return, men and women are unequal, sex outside marriage is sinful, homosexuality is an “abomination unto God”, and gender changes are “contrary to the natural order ordained by God”. Abbott said “In a school such as this it is very important that we have the right values to live by”. And here I was thinking education was about teaching facts! (Sorry, went off on a rant there.)

On Howard’s watch, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions excluding LULUCF had climbed by 23%. By late 2006, the public was finally becoming disillusioned with Howard’s climate policies, and Howard organized a taskforce of industry lobbyists to design a second phase of greenwash: an emissions trading scheme (ETS) which would allow Australia’s emissions target to be met with international offsets. Labor has adopted this policy and the Liberals now oppose it. However, Abbott again intends to determine the details of the Liberals’ climate policy through consultation with polluters, and an ETS is the policy favoured by Turnbull.

Abbott promises “a no surprises, no excuses government”, but it’s hard to believe him. Abbott’s campaign may superficially appear reassuring, but the Coalition has a track record of breaking election promises, lying to justify actions they believe are in the national interest, and blindsiding the country with radical right-wing policies unsupported by the majority of Australians. Actions speak louder than words.

In my opinion, the Liberal/National Coalition’s claims insult our intelligence and therefore they deserve our contempt, not our votes.


  1. …. but the Coalition has a track record of breaking election promises, lying to justify actions they believe are in the national interest, and blindsiding the country with radical right-wing policies unsupported by the majority of Australians. Actions speak louder than words.
    In my opinion, the Liberal/National Coalition’s claims insult our intelligence and therefore they deserve our contempt, not our votes…….

    You must surely be having a mild case of “I warned yah”

    1. Absolutely! Fingers crossed that the budget controversy leads to a double dissolution so the people can cast an informed vote.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.