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Howard’s way: northerly neighbours and western friends

IT IS VERY hard to find good, objective writing about the philosophies, motivations and political skills of this country's second-longest-serving prime minister. It seems to have been difficult for many commentators to approach John Howard objectively. There is a mountain of writing that ranges from the dismissive to the hysterically anti-Howard. On the other hand, the one biography, written by David Barnett and Pru Goward in 1997, has been justly criticised as a shallow hagiography, hurriedly compiled and riddled with factual errors.[i] Surveying the paucity of writing on such a dominant political figure, The Australian's Opinion Editor Tom Switzer concluded that Howard is simply regarded as too boring a subject to attract authors, publishers or readers. [ii]

This inability to take Howard seriously as a topic for careful, objective analysis reflects poorly on the nation's politics scholars. As Katherine Betts observed in The Great Divide (Duffy and Snellgrove, 1999) most members of the Australian intelligentsia are unable to overcome their contempt for what they see as Howard's embodiment of the crass, parochial values of lower middle-class society or their dismay at his perceived manipulation of social prejudices and divisions for political purposes.[iii] Howard's critics' heavy reliance on simplistic stereotypes – "nineteen-fifties man", racist, "little Englander" – results in their constant underestimation of him as a politician, leading to despair and disbelief after each of his election victories.

Whereas there are a few objective studies of Howard as a politician – notably very good chapters in recent books by Judith Brett and Paul Curran[iv] – there has been a deafening silence in relation to his approach to foreign policy, especially in Australia's region. Most critics have accounted for Australia's recent close relations with various regional governments, and Howard's attendance at last year's ASEAN Summit, by referring to his luck, growing maturity in foreign policy or recent "refocusing" on the region. What most miss in stressing recent or transitory factors is the extraordinary continuity in Howard's philosophies, rhetoric and actions in relation to Asia for close to a decade. One can find in Howard's 2005 foreign-policy speeches the same values and formulations that are peppered through his 1995 headland speeches and the Coalition's 1996 pre-election foreign-policy statement, A Confident Australia. This is despite almost constant commentary on the inappropriateness of Howard's approach to the region and a record of several serious policy reversals.

The doggedness of Howard's approach to the region, in the face of reverses and relentless criticism, suggests that his understandings of foreign policy are deeply rooted in his most basic, instinctual understandings of politics. Pondering the psychological and attitudinal bases of his approach to politics promises a better understanding of Howard as a politician and perhaps a better chance to evaluate the causes of his successes.


SIMPLISTIC REDUCTIONISM OF Howard's political values to a visceral racism,[v] or blind empire loyalty,[vi] explains neither the variety and nuance nor the effectiveness of his political and foreign-policy philosophy. On the other hand, studies that reduce conservative political attitudes to a range of psychological abnormalities – for example: "Conservative-attitude syndrome serves an ego-defensive function, arising as a response to feelings of insecurity and inferiority, and a generalised fear of uncertainty"[vii] – fail even the most basic explanatory tests in relation to Howard. Neither do the standard political psychology typologies – from the authoritarian personality[viii] to "strict father morality"[ix] – fit with accounts of Howard's leadership style.

John Howard's speeches, interviews and policy documents provide rich material for plumbing the emotional and values-based sources of his political values as they inform his foreign policy in the Asian region. His critics' claims that he has no values, that all he is concerned about is staying in office, that he is a cynical manipulator and follower of the public mood, don't stand up to scrutiny, considering the range of highly unpopular policies he has pushed at various times. He is, in Paul Kelly's terms, a conviction politician who has assured the media and the public that he "utterly believes in what [he is] saying and doing".[x] The political values that drive Howard's politics are visceral: "I brought to my job some fundamental values. I brought to my job the values that I learnt from my parents. The values that I had imbibed throughout my life and those values are based on some very simple propositions about human nature."[xi]

The psychological sources of Howard's political values, those "very simple propositions about human nature", can be found in his political socialisation. In all of Howard's public statements, he refers to two life events at a level of emotional intensity that suggest their fundamental role in Howard's world view. The first was the newly elected Menzies government's ending of petrol rationing in 1949, an event that gave a major boost to Howard's father's service station. The second was the World War I military service of his father, who died when the future prime minister was 16. Politics and, in particular, a strong identification with the philosophies and fortunes of Menzies' Liberal Party, provided a way for Howard to give contemporary meaning to his emotional reactions to these events. Menzies' ending of petrol rationing became a symbol of governmental sanity in the face of the Labor Party's unwarranted and heavy-handed interference in the fortunes of small-business owners. Lyall Howard's military service became an icon for devotion to a community of shared values and a duty to honour those national values that had elicited such devotion among Australia's fighting men.

Howard's political socialisation, during the 1940s and 1950s, occurred at a time when those institutions with which Howard's parents and class most closely identified – the nation, the Empire, the Western alliance – were defining themselves and their roles in intensely values-emphasising terms. The struggles against fascism and communism resulted in a heightened discourse on the values that needed to be defended and that held societies and allies together.[xii] In Australia, beginning with his "forgotten people" speeches in the 1940s and then during his political ascendancy, Menzies based these values on a belief in three "natural" social units – the individual, the family and the nation – and a deep suspicion of other "contrived" social formations, such as class or ethnic grouping.


FOR LIBERALS, THE individual is the locus of moral responsibility: strong and vibrant societies are the result of the moral rectitude of those constituting them; whereas weak, chaotic and indolent societies are the result of individual moral laxity. As Judith Brett argues, Australian liberals and their supporters have typically seen themselves as a "moral middle class" – the bearers of high moral standards and strong ethics of social responsibility.[xiii] Thus each level of aggregation of legitimate political community – family, then nation – is given its character by the projection and interaction of the moral selves of the individuals who make up families and nations. In short, for John Howard, political community is moral community.

Another basic influence on Howard during his political maturation was his family's strong Methodism, which reinforced his focus on the moral character of the individual. For Methodists, a person's good works do not earn him or her salvation; rather they are the natural expression of good moral character. Max Weber observed that, unlike other Protestants, Methodists believed that the only basis for spiritual salvation was a "pure feeling of absolute certainty" of divine forgiveness.[xiv] Even though Howard became an Anglican after his marriage to Janette Parker in 1971, a distinctive "Methodist psychology" can still be discerned in his often stubborn adherence to positions, supported by a feeling of inner certitude.

Howard's instinctive belief in the moral basis of community has a major impact on his foreign-policy world view. With the United States and the United Kingdom, Howard repeatedly talks of a "similarity of values", observing that "relationships built on values are always stronger and more enduring than relationships built on a fleeting coincidence of economic or strategic interest", and that "it is common values that, in the end, bind us together more tightly that anything else ... and so it is with the values that bind nations together".

This has strong resonances of Menzies' "organic ideal" of the natural solidarity of the English-speaking peoples within the British Commonwealth. In relation to the UK, Howard formulates the values-based connection thus in May 2005 he said:

" ... at the end of the day, what binds nations together more than anything else is not history, not just people-to-people links, but the values that they have in common. And in the end, the values that Britain and Australia share, common values of a commitment to democracy, a commitment to the liberty of the individual, a commitment to the parliamentary process, a belief that in the conduct of international affairs there are right positions and wrong positions, and in the conduct of international affairs occasionally that nations have to take stands, unpopular though they may be, in order to do the right thing." [xv]

But there is a special place in Howard's rhetoric of closeness for the US, perhaps partly due to the fact that he sees in US society the dominance of political ideals that he himself believes in as he declared ihn July 2002:

" ... when, two months ago, I had the immense privilege of addressing on behalf of Australia a joint sitting of the United States Congress in Washington I tried to distil some of the values that Australia had in common with the United States. And I could do no better than to state some values that not only bind our two nations together but also, I believe, resonate particularly with Liberals all around Australia. And I said that those values were a belief that the individual is more important than the state. A belief that strong families are a nation's greatest resource and that a united caring loving family is the best social welfare system that mankind has ever devised. A belief that competitive capitalism is the real key to national wealth and a belief that decency and hard work define a person's worth, not class or race or social background or privilege." [xvi]


ON THE OTHER hand, Howard has consistently stressed australia's value differences with the countries of the Asian region. Many of Howard's critics have taken this as a sign that in subscribing to many of Menzies' political values, he also imbibed Menzies' discomfort with and antipathies toward Asian countries. Again, this is a stereotype that doesn't bear scrutiny. There is no trace within Howard's prime ministerial speeches and interviews of any enduring impact of the yellow/red peril fears that were so strong in mainstream Australia during the 1950s and 1960s. His speech opening the national Korean War memorial in 2000 lacks the emotional tenor of his speeches commemorating the First World War, his several "Australians at war" addresses deal very briefly with the Confrontation and Vietnam conflicts and, as David Lowe observes, he has allowed Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to take the lead in skirmishes over Vietnam War history. After leaving university, Howard spent 1963 travelling around the world; the countries he visited before reaching the UK included Thailand, Singapore and India. And, as several commentators have observed, Howard's record of prime ministerial visits to the region outstrip those of his predecessors who were said to be more "comfortable" with Asia.

Howard's preferred formula has been that Australia approaches the Asian region on the basis of "mutual respect and shared interests". Howard has called this approach "positive realism", and this formula is no more often used than in relation to China as he said in September 2002:

"The relationship between Australia and China is sound because it is built upon the important principles of mutual respect for each other and a recognition that societies that have different cultures and different histories can nevertheless work together very closely if they understand those differences and they focus on the things that bring their two societies together." [xvii]

Both parts of this formulation – mutual respect and shared interests – are crucial. The formula "shared interests" as the basis for relations between entities with different values is a logical follow-on from Howard's understanding of political community. Because genuine community can only be the result of common values – of loyalty to a common moral community – relations between communities of different values must be organised on the basis of interest.

It is the milieu of the family versus the milieu of the market. In the family, all interaction is framed by a set of mutual moral commitments. In the market, those interacting have no ongoing moral obligation beyond the bounds of the transaction. The transaction itself arises solely from the interaction of interests.

I don't believe that John Howard sees either of these types of relationship – organic or transactional – as superior or inferior to the other. Both are necessary in society; and both have their positives and negatives. While there is greater emotional comfort in organic relationships, the existence of moral community also brings with it dangerous expectations as well as tensions at times when interests clash with organic loyalties. In their own ways, organic relationships require just as much management as transactional relationships.

Transactional relationships, on the other hand, because they are based on coincidences of interest, are in many ways more predictable and stable. But they should always be managed on those terms. Thus Howard raged against what he saw as the ALP's irrational focus on an "Asia-only" foreign policy, implying that all of Australia's foreign-policy interests could be secured in Asia. His more general critique was that the ALP's concentration on institutions rather than outcomes threatened to bend Australia's interests to fit in with Labor's preferences in terms of international means.

Howard uses the metaphors of neighbourhood and neighbourliness to describe relations with Asian countries. Because nations, like people, live in close proximity, they must relate to each other on the basis of civility and neighbourly concern. In August 2001 he outlined this approach:

"The nations of Asia matter because they are important political partners with whom we have worked for many years to build a more stable and secure region. They matter because of where they are. Their proximity inextricably links their future prosperity and security with ours. And they matter because of what they are – our largest export markets and the source of much of our investment and imports." [xviii]

For Howard, Australia's response to the Boxing Day tsunami "reminded us of the imperative of goodwill and decency between people as well as between nations".


SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGISTS REMIND us that the process of individual and group identification with others is always accompanied by a complementary process of distinguishing oneself and one's group from those seen as "not-self". Thus Howard's strong identification with the Liberal, Protestant, middle-class, loyalist, Anglo-Saxon community was accompanied by a rejection of those seen as the "other": Labor, Catholic, working-class, trade union, radical nationalist. Within Australia, these were people with whom one must deal, but with whom one could not identify except on a level of basic civility. While Howard has moved with mainstream Australian society past most of these early- and mid-20th-century sectarianisms, the lines of collective self and not-self remain basic to many of his passions and political understandings.A central theme in Howard's foreign policy is that of cultural pride and respect for cultural difference. For Howard, cultural continuities and differences are considerations that closely follow his thinking on political community. The importance of national cultures derives from their role in defining national communities. Culture is the result of the history of a people – the slow, organic growth of traditions, values and self-understandings. For Howard, a people should be proud of its culture, history and institutions, and a nation should confront the world confident of its historical and cultural achievements.

Howard came to office nursing a deep anger at what he saw as the "cringing phase" of Australian nationalism, which had "showed such little faith in so many things Australian". As he directed his anger at those he saw as denigrating and impugning Australia's heritage and traditions – the so-called "black armband" approach to history – one could almost hear him defending the Australia his father and grandfather had fought for on the Western Front . "Even people's confidence in their nation's past has come under attack as the professional purveyors of guilt attacked Australia's heritage and people were told they should apologise for pride in their culture, traditions, institutions and history."

A direct outgrowth of this was what Howard saw as a "cringing" approach to Asia during the Labor years – a tendency to compare Australia's economic achievements unfavourably against those of a booming Asia and a tendency to be subservient to a construction of Asian sensitivities, the so-called "Asian way" of diplomacy or business. This looked like an extension of the national self-loathing of the black-armband crowd: their denigration of Australia's history and institutions fitted well with their eagerness to subscribe to "Asian" practices. The other extension of national self-loathing was, of course, an unwillingness to identify Australia as a Western country and a symbolic downgrading of Australia's "organic" links to North America and Western Europe.

The result was that Howard was determined to be forthright about Australia's culture and institutions as distinct from those of Asia: "We have stopped worrying whether we are Asian, in Asia, enmeshed with Asia, or part of some mythical East Asian hemisphere. We have got on with the job of being ourselves in the region."[xix] He and Downer spoke repeatedly of Australia's stature in the eyes of the world. During the Asian financial crisis, Downer insisted that Australia was no longer a supplicant, trying to downplay its differences and relying on the goodwill of Asian countries to accept its regional membership: "We have ceased being the region's demandeur, badgering our neighbours for attention and recognition. Australia is now a genuinely close partner and regional friend, a country that can be relied on in good times and bad." [xx]

The corollary of cultural pride for Howard is cultural respect. Nations should respect different cultures and the pride that different nations have in their own historical and cultural achievements: "Good neighbours recognise and respect each other's values and beliefs." Herein lies the importance of the other part of his mantra – "mutual respect". The participants in transactional relationships should treat each other as do citizens in a liberal society – without interfering with or being unduly judgemental about one's interlocutors.

This means that while Howard almost obsessively focuses on "values" continuities and differences between Australia and other nations, and is a forthright advocate of democracy, he is no Wilsonian or neo-conservative trying to impose Australian values on others: "Our relations with countries having different cultural and political traditions must be based on mutual respect. We will give them the same respect and acknowledgment of sovereign authority that we ask be given to us."[xxi] Indeed, Howard's insistence that Australia's alliance with the US doesn't damage its regional relations relies partly on a belief that states should respect each other's right to ally and associate with whomever they choose.

The other theme he has consistently stressed is that "Asia" itself contains a broad range of different cultures, and that it is profoundly wrong to approach the region as a homogeneous bloc. Howard has insisted that Australia must deal individually with each Asian country, taking into account its specific interests, culture and traditions as he observed in August 2004.

"In my view, much Australian commentary about the region rests on a second false assumption – that there is some singular entity called "Asia" which we should approach always and everywhere with the same level of intensity independent of Australia's interests. The Government's commitment to close engagement in Asia proceeds on the basis of mutual respect. And a key part of this engagement has been our willingness to appreciate Asia's diversity." [xxii]


HOWARD'S POLITICAL ATTITUDES affect not onlythe values shaping Australian foreign policy in Asia, but also the particular foreign-policy style of the Howard Government. Howard's is a distinctively conservative, pragmatic, tactical style of government, which is most clearly reflected in the bilateral focus of Australia's contemporary relations with Asia.

In his landmark 1963 study Childhood and Society, psychologist Erik Erikson argued that an important part of a person's psychological development was the process of securing a stable, consistent relationship between his or her individual ego identity and the values of his or her social milieu.[xxiii] Howard's personal values, based on his commitments to individualism, the importance of personal conviction, and social morality, were both shaped by his social surrounds and continued to shape his perceptions and expectations of society. In other words, Howard's sense of self strongly influences his conceptions of what his society is and how it should be governed.

The conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott described the conservative disposition as a belief that "there is absolute value in the free play of human choice, that private property (the emblem of choice) is a natural right, that it is only in the enjoyment of diversity of opinion and activity that true belief and good conduct can be expected to disclose themselves".[xxiv] For Howard, society is complex and deeply varied. Properly governed societies derive great strength from their complexity and variety by encouraging individualism, reflecting moral character and rewarding social-mindedness.

Closely related to this is Howard's evolutionary understanding of history, regarding the progress of time as a mechanism that shapes and gradually improves a people's traditions, institutions and values. As C.B. Macpherson observes, this conservative approach to history is a utilitarian calculus, which assumes that those institutions and traditions that have endured have done so because they have demonstrated their superiority over alternatives.[xxv] But Howard's historical understanding also reflects his legal training. While current and future generations are the beneficiaries of time's carefully wrought institutions, we and our children are not responsible for the misdeeds of our forebears. It seems to me to be a particularly legalistic approach to history: one inherits the goods, but not the guilt, of one's ancestors.

These understandings of self and society shape Howard's style of government and foreign policy. Howard has described himself as a "Burkean conservative", and from Edmund Burke he has inherited a scepticism of simple, theoretically derived schemes of radical change. This was behind Burke's warnings about the dangers of Jacobinism and is behind Howard's antipathy to socialism. Burke doubted that individuals or groups of any contemporary generation could contain greater wisdom about society than the accumulated wisdom of countless preceding generations, which is bequeathed to us in the form of institutions and traditions. "We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, of ages," he wrote.[xxvi]

Howard's respect for slowly evolving institutions and the complexity of society shape his attitude towards policy innovation. Oakeshott's description of modern conservatives' approach to change captures Howard's style perfectly: "an innovation which is a response to some specific deficit, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium is more desirable than one which springs from a notion of a generally improved condition of human circumstances, and is far more desirable than one generated by a vision of perfection".[xxvii]

In Isaiah Berlin's terms, Howard's approach to the problems of government is synthesising rather than analytical: a problem and its solution must be approached pragmatically, taking into account the full spectrum of other values and commitments, rather than as an issue to be dissected and solved on its own terms.[xxviii] Indeed, Howard sees the role of government as facilitating changes that are intimated within society, its processes and institutions, and abolishing those institutions that are untenable and carry within themselves the forces of their own dissolution. Here I take issue with portraits of Howard as a social conservative but an economic radical. Even his economic policies are pursued from a conservative belief that free markets are the natural state of free societies. Howard's market-based economic reforms are intended to return Australia to what Friedrich Hayek argued was a road "abandoned" by the rise of state intervention in the early 20th century.[xxix]

In foreign-policy terms, this has meant that the Howard Government eschewed Labor's regionalist, multilateralist approach to Asia, which sought to establish overarching regional institutions and regimes within which the practical stuff of foreign policy could be resolved. In an August 2004 speech he said,

"... simple bromides masquerading as grand strategy fail to take account of Asia's diversity. So, too, they distort Australia's position as a Western country with a unique network of political, economic and people-to-people links with Asia. I make no apology for the fact that we focus our engagement on those relationships and issues that matter most to Australia's interests."[xxx]

The Coalition Government's emphasis on bilateralism as its preferred foreign-policy approach to the Asian region was not simply an attempt at "product differentiation" from its predecessor, as many commentators argued. It is an expression of a philosophy and approach to governing that is deeply rooted in John Howard's attitudes. Foreign affairs is, in Howard's words, too "messy and uncertain",[xxxi] and the Asian region too diverse, to be pushed or cajoled into rationalist constructs. Pragmatic management of bilateral relationships far better suits Howard's synthesising approach. "Static frameworks" and "rigidly defining the focus of this nation's international attention" – references to Coalition perceptions of the Labor approach – are seen by Howard as inhibiting the flexibility needed for managing foreign-policy issues.[xxxii]

Perhaps Howard's critics are right: maybe he has been lucky in foreign-policy terms. But a sober appraisal
of Howard's political attitudes and, consequently, his approach to foreign policy raises another intriguing possibility: perhaps Howard's values have struck the right chords during this period of history in the Asian region. Certainly a case could be made that Howard's forthright assertion of both the existence of cultural difference and its irrelevance for regional relations has struck a chord among countries currently unsure of their own regional identities and aspirations. Maybe Howard has found natural harmony among so many regional leaders devoted to pragmatic, risk-averse, technocratic policy making. Perhaps a return to bilateralism was favoured by others in the region also, after the disappointments of global and regional multilateralism in the 1990s. Pondering such possibilities is, at least for me, much more tasty intellectual
fare than the standard polemics against the Howard Government and its management of our relations
with Asia.

[i] David Barnett with Pru Goward, John HowardPrime Minister, Melbourne: Viking, 1997

[ii] Tom Switzer, "John Howard and the Missing Biographies", Quadrant, October 2004

[iii] Katherine Betts, The Great Divide: Immigration Politics in Australia, Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1999

[iv] Judith Brett, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2003; Paul Curran, The Power of Speech, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004

[v] See, for example, Andrew Markus, Race: John Howard and the Remaking of Australia, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2001; and Mungo McCallum, "Girt By Sea: Australia, the Refugees and the Politics of Fear", Quarterly Essay, Issue 5, Melbourne: Black Inc Press, 2001

[vi] See, for example, Robert Garran, True Believer: John Howard, George Bush and the American Alliance, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2004

[vii] Glenn D. Wilson, "A Dynamic Theory of Conservatism" in Glenn D. Wilson (ed), The Psychology of Conservatism, London: Academic Press, 1973, p. 265

[viii] See Theodor W. Adorno et al, The Authoritarian Personality, New York: Harper, 1950

[ix] See George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002

[x] Press conference, 1/10/98

[xi] ibid.

[xii] See, for example, David Lowe, Menzies and the "Great World Struggle", Sydney: UNSW Press, 1999

[xiii] Brett, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class

[xiv] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, p. 141

[xv] Speech, 30/5/03

[xvi] Speech, 20/7/02

[xvii] Speech, 17/9/02

[xviii] Speech, 22/8/01

[xix] Speech, 21/9/99

[xx] Alexander Downer, "A Long Term Commitment: Australia and East Asia", speech to the Indonesian Council on World Affairs and the Indonesia-Australia Business Council, Jakarta, July 9, 1998, mimeo, p. 4

[xxi] Speech, 22/8/01

[xxii] Speech, 13/8/04

[xxiii] Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, New York: WW Norton, 1963

[xxiv] Michael Oakeshott, "On Being Conservative" in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991, p. 427

[xxv] C. B. Macpherson, Burke, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980 (That's the full reference)

[xxvi] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, London: Penguin, 1992 [First Published 1793]

[xxvii] Oakeshott, "On Being Conservative", p. 412

[xxviii] Isaiah Berlin, "Political Judgement" in Henry Hardy (ed), The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History, London: Pimlico, 1996

[xxix] Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, London: Routledge, 1997

[xxx] Speech 13/8/04

[xxxi] Speech, 18/6/04

[xxxii] Speech, 22/8/01

From Griffith Review Edition 9: Up North © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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