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.

Join the conversation! 9 Comments

  1. Why the he’ll should anyone in Australia be inspired by a war criminal? Why shoud anyone in Australia be inspired by a leader whose primary method of attaining popularity is to play at dog whistle politics? If history does not judge the Howard government harshly on it’s cowardice. Then this country will never progress.

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  2. I like the way that you have put this together, however it is the hindsight view political history that allows the light to shine in where it was unable to or not allowed to when personal and party politics dictated silence and obedience.

    They say the victor gets to write the history, but I think that this biography will open a whole new “hisory war” where those trodden on or trodden down by Howard will seek to bring light to the other view of many of the episodes/issues covered by Howard.

    The real lesson will be the debate and what it further uncovers….bring on the tidal wave.

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  3. There’s a case to be made that Howard dog-whistled as part of a brilliant manoeuvre to quash the rising force of populist fascism in Australia. One Nation should have been a genuinely scary movement, with a number of real extremists (such as Welf Herfurth, former member of the German NPD’s executive, and a number of former members of the National Action party), and in 1998 was electorally the most popular third party.

    Howard destroyed this fast-rising party utterly. It’s worth bearing in mind, at least. Imagine a One Nation as powerful today as the Greens are – and where the Greens solely take Labor votes, One Nation strongly appealed to elements of the Labor base. There’s a legacy.

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  4. Howard was nothing but a malign mediocrity who was just damned lucky to be in charge when Keating had cvome to the end and that in 1998 the Democrats gave him cover by promising to block the GST & Telstra sales (and then reneging). Even then he lost the popular vote. Then in 2001 people went nuts over TAMPA and 9/11 and the ALP handed it to him by saying he was right.

    The ALP split over forestry in TAS in 2004.

    Howard was as lucky a pollie as we have seen in this country but there was never anything to him. He utterly raveaged the country’s infrastructure, debauched public life and discourse and left the country in a much worse condition than he found it. That is his legacy and we still are suffering from it.

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  5. Interesting observations. However I don’t think it can be underestimated how much the opposition, in a number of cases, ‘lost’ the election rather than the elections being ‘won’ by a particular party. If you get my drift 🙂

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  6. […] rock is likely to expose a mass of blind and seething hate that may momentarily mesmerise or repulsehttps://dragonistasblog.com/2010/10/23/hate-mail-may-drown-out-real-learning-from-howard-years/ Face it, Howard you lost bigtime,Petering Time , North Coast VoicesBut the fact that Mrs. Bucket […]

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  7. […] that may seem like good news for Greens supporters I was reminded of a comment I read on Drag0nista’s blog by Andrew Riddle about Howard’s legacy: There’s a case to be made that Howard dog-whistled […]

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  8. “Anticipation of this event has led me to ponder why Australians love to hate politicians.”

    Everyone hates the person who puts them on a promise. When you are on a promise you are under control until the promise is fulfilled.
    That could be forever.

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  9. […] rock is likely to expose a mass of blind and seething hate that may momentarily mesmerise or repulsehttps://dragonistasblog.com/2010/10/23/hate-mail-may-drown-out-real-learning-from-howard-years/ Face it, Howard you lost bigtime,Petering Time , North Coast VoicesBut the fact that Mrs. […]

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About Drag0nista

Political blogger and columnist on the interwebs. Former Liberal staffer and industry lobbyist. Studying the entrails of federal politics since 1989. Otherwise known as Paula Matthewson.

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