Howard’s end? When will the former PM’s divisive influence wane?

John Slade writes: I fear the divisive, selfish nastiness that John Howard so skilfully constructed into Australian society remains a significant element in the electorate. It would take generations of outstanding leadership for Australia to recover from his remodelling — or rather white-anting — of government and society (“How the ghost of John Howard haunted the Aston byelection”).

While he may not have been solely to blame, his every effort and considerable skill was always in the direction of degrading our society. The damage toll is too tedious to list. The resources boom fuelled his delusion of being an economic genius whereas his gross mismanagement of that rare opportunity seems to have led to a weaker nation without much direction and lacking the ability to define its future place.

The Howard legacy is still so pervasive that the new government seems too timid to challenge it for fear of it exploding into power again. The absurdity of AUKUS, the awfulness of our refugee stance, and the falsehoods of our climate policies are ghosts of Howard and now do little for political optimism. With only a little good intent, Australia could have been so much stronger and self-sufficient with a happier, healthier, more even, and better-housed population.

Stafford Ray writes: “We shall decide who comes here and the manner in which they come.” If only our Indigenous brothers and sisters had said that in 1788, then rounded them up and sent them packing. John Howard set the time bombs and we are seeing the explosions in house prices and wealth disparity. Why they trot him out at every election beats me, but then so does most modern Coalition thinking.

Geoff Davies writes: It was John Howard who took us to the dark side. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were, in my view, sadly misguided in imposing full-on neoliberalism, and we continue to pay a heavy price for that. But they were not intentionally cruel people. Howard, in his desperation to regain power and with the centre-right now occupied by Keating, took over Pauline Hanson’s racist bleatings, and he was much more cunning about it. He also set about populating our public institutions with his own nasty and biased kind. (Labor still has not had the wit, or will, to seriously reverse that.) Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison took it all further, and into some new territory — incompetence, systemic corruption — but Howard set them on the path.

Malcolm Turnbull writes: I saw in Maeve McGregor’s article a reference to the same-sex marriage plebiscite. It is very common for commentators to claim, as McGregor does, that I should have simply held a free vote in the Parliament on the issue. That ignores quite a few political realities, the two most important of which are, first, the Parliament at that time would not have voted to legalise same-sex marriage had a free vote been held. It would have been close in the house and may, just may, have got over the line, but it would have certainly failed in the Senate. Second, the Coalition had promised to give Australians a vote on the issue. In practical political terms we had to do all we could to honour that promise. As it turned out the plebiscite was a great success. Nearly 80% voted (amazing in a completely voluntary vote) and over 62% voted yes. So a massive collective national endorsement of marriage equality which is as definitive as it is irreversible.

The debate was painful for many Australians and I deeply regret that, but in a democracy like ours if you want to change the law, by whatever means, you cannot avoid debate. The best answer to those who mobilise hatred is the triumph of love.

John Peel writes: His physical stature is not his fault, but Howard has always been a ghastly little man. Why the Liberal Party keeps wheeling him out at every election, state or federal, defies belief.

Judy Hardy-Holden writes: Thank you, thank you, thank you, Maeve McGregor. You have encapsulated all the political sorrows I accumulated since I walked in a Palm Sunday march in Noosa railing against Howard’s war in Iraq. Maybe every time a Liberal stands up spouting nonsense we should just chant: “Howard, Howard, Howard.”

I still wonder why he hasn’t stood in a court of law to explain his truth behind the lies of weapons of mass destruction. Maybe one day?

Patricia Ferrier writes: What a great summary of 20 years of moral outrage: the despair of Howard’s leadership ending with the disgust of Scott Morrison’s treachery. I am so grateful to the people of Aston for showing the Liberal Party that its style of governance is not electable. It would appear Peter Dutton has no understanding of how the opposition parties’ behaviour is toxic.

Jo Vallentine writes: Howard’s legacy is surely writ large in the current woes of the Liberal Party. The year 2000, with the opening and closing events of the Sydney Olympics, is the last time I felt proud to be an Australian. I love this country deeply, all of it, with all its faults and foibles. But the meanness and cruelty engendered by Howard and subsequent leaders leaves me feeling deep shame.

When the Albanese government was elected, my hopes soared but it hasn’t taken long for disappointment to set in. I know all improvements can’t happen overnight, but seeing money for social housing being subjected to the whims of the market is not what we’d expect from a Labor government. Even more shattering is the blind acquiescence to the AUKUS deal. Just imagine what else that $368 billion could fund over 30 years. Australian sovereignty — what tiny shred of it was left — has been thrown to the winds.  We’re becoming a nuclearised nation, with highly enriched, weapons-grade nuclear leftovers to be dealt with in the future.

Young people know that the biggest risk to our security is the climate crisis —  not a beat-up to justify huge military expenditure by setting up our biggest trading partner as a potential enemy.

Margaret Ludowyk writes: I heartily agree that Howard not only corrupted the Liberal Party, he destroyed our previously caring and generous Australian society. He turned us into a greedy, selfish, entitled and divisive society. He began the push towards the Institute of Public Affairs/Murdoch vision for Australia of small government and low taxes. Australians want government services and a fair society and we are prepared to pay taxes to achieve them.

Julianne Sweeney writes: Bravo, Maeve McGregor. I’ve been waiting for the blame to be attributed to the real cause of increasing nastiness in the Liberal Party. Howard’s mindset infected Australians but it seems they have recovered and are returning to a fairer future society.

My example of Howard’s sneaky policies was when he banned the use of the word “multiculture” in school documents in the late ’90s.  We had to change words on applications and official papers at Innisfail High where I taught from 1974 until 2002. The M-word was dirty. The PM led us to fear difference, as Tampa showed. Howard had wanted to slow the rate of Asian migration — 17% of Australians now are integrated and contributing citizens, as he was forced later to admit. And now his ghost is still influencing the Liberals in 2023 on the Voice to Parliament.

Jules Pennell writes: The nation is still suffering from many of Howard’s policies. At the top of my list are the funding of private schools (at the expense of state schools) and tax concessions in superannuation. He is the man who started the rampant escalation of house prices by warning baby boomers that they couldn’t rely on the pension and simultaneously promoting negative gearing. When will the Labor Party get the guts to undo these enduring attacks on the distribution of wealth and egalitarianism?

Seán O’Donohue writes: If I could make a suggestion about Maeve McGregor and her writing, it would be to cut the personal invective such as: “Peter Dutton …[is] a truly awful human being” or “Howard — that immortal ‘lying rodent’ — whose political mendacity and lack of ethics on all manner of issues”. I offer that suggestion for a couple of reasons: it adds nothing other than colour to the pieces she writes and, while that colour has a certain undergraduate appeal, it weakens her position as it suggests that the author is not much better than a partisan hack. And that is a shame because based on what she writes, McGregor is a shrewd observer of Australia’s political scene.

The thesis of her article on Howard and his reshaping of the Liberal Partyis a good and worthwhile one and takes the long view of a party that has long shopped its principles around in search of the constituency that would elect. Howard’s “broad church” was in fact a reality, embracing more socially progressive members such as Malcolm Turnbull and Kelly O’Dwyer to more conservative members such as Kevin Andrews and Tony Abbott. The problem with the party in recent times is that it can no longer accommodate its more progressive members as they have been overwhelmed by the right.

Ray Cowling writes: Oh Maeve McGregor, as incisive as a surgeon’s new scalpel and all so true. You could have added “sanctimonious” and “entitled”. But next time, please include the damage done to education, both school and tertiary. Government schools receive less government money than private schools but must include the most difficult students. Private schools may expel, but government schools effectively cannot.

Re. finance: e.g. Coburg High has been operating for more than 10 years but still has no science block and no music rooms. Yet Scotch College at Hawthorn has a restaurant above its second boatshed, a chapel, assembly hall, scout hall, gymnasium, cinema, tiered concert hall and a tiered drama theatre with a mass of stage/scenery equipment – not to mention specialist classrooms, tennis courts, ovals, etc.

Graeme Hamilton writes: I am old enough to remember when Howard was a do-nothing treasurer, and I’ve watched his rise to power with great sadness. I suspect the Liberal Party will have to move back towards the centre to become relevant. This will need to start with preselection. Alternatively, a new centre-right party could be formed. Are there any Don Chipps out there?

John Biggs writes: McGregor has clearly outlined Howard’s culpability for the malaise of the Liberal Party. The tragedy is that his successors, with the exception of the hapless Malcolm Turnbull, were delighted to amplify the wrong turns that Howard defined. The mystery is that Howard lasted for so long. He was a horrible person who knew how to play to the dark side of voters.

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