Hate mail may drown out real learning from Howard years

Judging by the early mail on Twitter, there could be a lot of pollie-hate brought to light this week by the launch of John Howard’s autobiography. The overturning of this slimy rock is likely to expose a mass of blind and seething hate that may momentarily mesmerise or repulse before it quickly disperses and plunges back into the shadows.

Anticipation of this event has led me to ponder why Australians love to hate politicians. Conversely, it’s occurred to me that not many politicians have ever been popular in Australia, and even less of them have been Prime Minister.

The esteemed journal Wikkipedia shows that, since 1972, only two Prime Ministers have enjoyed what we might call popular acclaim. Hawke’s peak approval rating was 75%, a record that remained untouched until Rudd’s heyday (74%).

Somewhat surprisingly Howard comes in third, with a peak approval rating of 67%. Keating (40%) comes last after Whitlam (62%) and Fraser (56%).

What does this say about Australian voters? Undoubtedly we are a cynical and pragmatic lot, so maybe this is why we don’t particularly like politicians.

Ironically, dislike of a politician doesn’t seem to prevent us from entrusting them with the Treasury benches. The popular Hawke is our longest serving Labor PM, and third longest overall, with 4 election victories under his belt and nearly 9 years in office. However, the fourth longest is the unpopular Fraser who nevertheless won 3 elections and served as PM for just over 7 years.

It’s no secret that Howard was not loved as Prime Minister, indeed at times he was loathed, yet he is the second-longest serving PM ever. Howard remained in office for nearly 12 years and won 4 elections. Why is that? I believe it’s because pragmatic Australians ultimately vote for the politician they think will best run the country.

For many years that politician was John Howard. While he was never a popular politician, Howard had the ability to secure the votes of people who didn’t like him or who didn’t usually vote Liberal. These people didn’t necessarily agree with Howard but trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. Admittedly Fraser also won elections while unpopular, but Howard did so after making some very unpopular decisions.

It’s a matter of record that Howard threw that trust away. He squandered the electoral asset that he’d carefully built over years in high office with acts of indulgence and hubris. People lost faith in Howard as they watched him put personal political philosophies ahead of the public interest, and refuse to consider succession planning in the Liberal Party.

As the hate mail starts to flow next week, it will drown out the real learning from the Howard years.

John Howard’s story should be a compelling and inspiring one. Having failed once as a leader and been assassinated by colleagues, he eventually rallied and brought his party back from nearly 14 years in the political wilderness. He then kept them in office for nearly 12 years.

Perhaps more importantly, Howard showed that a successful leader does not need to be popular, but must be seen to be making decisions that put the public interest first, on every occasion. Howard’s model was studied closely by Rudd but replicated poorly. It will be interesting to see if Gillard chooses to take a similar course.

This post appeared on ABC’s The Drum – Unleashed.