by Garry Sturgess
A DRAMATICALLY changed world financial outlook and Barack Obama as
US president seemingly divides the Howard Government era from
here-and-now attention. Yet the 11-year plus period is a tale for the
ages and critical to Australia’s national understanding and identity.
SBS picked it as such and commissioned the three-part series Liberal Rule: The Politics that Changed Australia which is screening in the Tuesday 8.30pm timeslot – it premiered on July 21 and continues on July 28 with the final episode on August 4.
As the senior researcher for the ABC television series Labor In Power (devised by Philip Chubb) broadcast in 1993, I had been keen to apply similar tools and techniques to making a television series about the Howard government but with significant differences.
The Labor In Power template was broadcast last year in the ABC’s series The Howard Years. Without detailed comparison, Liberal Rule is a broader and more historically fashioned account, beginning in fact with the Fraser period as springboard to Howard’s own career and to the deregulatory ideas that drove both sides of politics for more than 30 years.
In addition, the director Nick Torrens and I were concerned not just with the political recounting of events from the mouths of the players, but with the story of the nation during the period and the extent to which politics and country were linked.
We too spent many hours on camera with John Howard, Peter Costello, Alexander Downer, Peter Reith, John Anderson, key staffers and other insiders gathering insights about what was intended and what was achieved and dealing too with issues of leadership, motivation and the ideas that shaped and inspired them.
But we also took an outside-in view, tackling Australia’s leading political historians, social scientists, economists and authors to help us examine the Howard philosophy and reform agenda for the economy, society and Australia’s international relations.
Labor In Power was a benchmark certainly for a current affairs political documentary series in close with the playmakers. For us, however, it was also a marker of what we wanted to do differently.
We intended a much more layered film-maker’s appreciation of the Liberal Rule period, a non-fiction feature presentation of Australia’s political history.
Of relevance, Liberal Rule was also conceived as an archival project. All research and on-camera interviews were transcribed and tapes and transcripts will form a collection preserved for posterity.
Leadership is a key issue in our series: Why Australia chooses the leaders it does? Why Fraser over Whitlam, Hawke over Fraser, Keating over Hewson? Why did the country choose Howard when it did, choose, choose and re-choose him and then reject him for Rudd?
Leadership in the narrower sense, Hawke and Keating in conflict, was the key dramatic driver to Labor In Power and made that series so powerful. But it was a potential frightener for Liberal Rule interviewees and, initially, we were keen to stress that, no, Liberal Rule was not all about power rivalry between Howard and his Treasurer.
It was, however, often the main focus for our interviewees. When we began research interviews early in 2006, three former senior ministers freely discussed the so-called McLachlan note and its record of an alleged deal between John Howard and Peter Costello in late1994 that Howard on becoming Prime Minister would only serve one-and-a-half terms.
They had been present when Ian McLachlan, the former Howard government Defence Minister, had fished the noted from his wallet and shown it around.
It was a dog we hoped would lie until revealed by us but knew that something discussed so often and casually would one day awake. When that day came in July 2006, the disclosure rocked and destabilised the Government distracting it as it confronted an electorate suddenly turning.
To Howard and his confidants, the disclosure of the note and Costello’s implied comments about Howard’s veracity smashed any hope of a Howard-Costello leadership transition.
“I would have retired at the end of 2006 if it hadn’t been for the McLachlan memo and what followed it,” he told us on the third day of our interview with him. “I was contemplating through 2006 that the time was coming to go.
“But what happened with the McLachlan thing broke was that there was overwhelming pressure on me not only to stay but also to say then that I was staying. And the truth is that all of my senior colleagues at that time said that I had to stay and that was the overwhelming view of the party and it was the overwhelming view of our supporters in the community, including in the business community.”
Costello and his confidants, of course, are equally adamant.
“He could have if he’d wanted to, he was in a situation as the leader of the party, the uncontested leader of the party, where he could make his own decisions, and he had complete and utter freedom to make his own decisions and he could have made that decision any day he chose,” Costello told us during a lengthy interview.
The McLachlan disclosure was potentially disastrous for our project. Combined with the phony 2007 election campaign of more than a year’s duration and other disclosures in the Errington and Van Onselen Howard biography and, then, news of an uncapped Waters Edge Canberra restaurant dinner in 2005 involving the Treasurer and three journalists, our patient circling of sitting government hit brick wall after brick wall.
With the prime minister’s loyal media man Tony O’Leary ever vigilant and suspicious at the gate, access to Howard and his government was near impossible, even through the impeccable approaches of Howard’s friends and former chiefs of staff, Grahame Morris and Arthur Sinodinos.
To Tony we were trying to film the entrails of a dying government (we certainly hadn’t written Howard off and that was not our intention). But winning or trying to win an election, not history, was his only concern and, in its context, fair enough too.
We did witness, though, the extraordinary, unrelenting pressures bearing down on a sitting prime minister and the near superhuman efforts made to stave off defeat. In the Parliamentary sitting in the week following the September 2007 APEC gathering in Sydney, we filmed Howard’s joint press conference with the visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
It was a moment of stubborn pride when Howard stared down his challengers and declared he’d never turned his back on a fight. To us, it looked excruciating. Talking to Howard after the event, it was all in a day’s work, almost relaxing.
“Part of dealing with the domestic political pressure is to deal with the international guest and visitor affectionately, because you owe it to him,” Howard said.
“The international people I was receiving and dealing with at that time were people I knew very well and … there’s an interesting camaraderie between heads of government of democracies because at various stages you’ve all been through the same experiences.”
As noted, leadership in its broader sense is a main theme of our series. There’s no doubting that Howard led his Government, and all roads led to him. Going back to his days as Liberal leader in the 1980s, when he famously said he won and lost leadership by accident and ambush, he didn’t come to leadership as a natural. He learnt it through the disciplined grind of politics along the way.
Without making value judgments on the courses he took as Prime Minister, he was never more in control and stronger than when seizing the initiative. In his first months as Prime Minister in 1996, he seized the nettle on gun control and led. Even Paul Keating gave him that.
In 1997, he took control of a drifting government and led unilaterally with his GST initiative. In 2001 he grabbed hold of the Tampa issue and made it a signature of his leadership. Shortly after, he invoked ANZUS when September 11 found him on US soil, a witness to the al Qaeda strike on the Pentagon after it too was in hit in the terror of that day. Disaster relief for Indonesia after the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami trailed death and destruction through Asia was another bold move of which there were surprisingly many during his years in office.
Similarly, Howard was arguably never weaker as a leader than when he failed to act or acted too late – on Wik, on Hanson, on climate change, on indigenous reconciliation and the apology.
One of our observers, Professor Judith Brett, calls Howard the most creative conservative politician since Robert Menzies. Howard was surprisingly creative for a politician who was often maligned as dull. He learnt how to fashion, coordinate, manipulate, position and connect the tools of policy to create rapid and powerful electorally appealing responses to circumstances. He maintained these abilities to the last — the Northern Territory intervention, the Murray Darling Basin agreement, the big-bang tax cuts of the 2007 budget and election campaign.
But there came a point when voters could see the shifting and placement of policy furniture behind the curtain, could hear and spot the whirring of mental gears and electoral calculation and stopped coming to the show, as it inevitably happens. On other matters, he lacked creativity and stuck doggedly to the script that was edged into his character and approach from early years and this, ironically, prevented him coming through with a modified performance that might have held people for longer.
It was Peter Costello’s view that nothing could have saved the Government but a transition to him and Howard missed these opportunities to pass on the baton. Maybe?
Surprisingly for a government led by a supposedly dull man, these were power-packed years. And they teemed with characters not popularly associated with the coalition breed, characters often encouraged and championed by John Howard: Alexander Downer, Peter Reith, Tony Abbot and Peter Costello, too, in earlier times.
The big question explored by our series was the impact of Liberal Rule upon the country it governed. How did Australia change? How is it different? And did it change and is it different in response to what: Liberal Rule or other causes? We found these questions teasingly difficult to compact into three episodes, let alone trying to footnote here.
In conclusion, Liberal Rule is political documentary with a difference. It’s a positive development in Australia’s national life that we are writing more and paying more filmic and artistic attention to Liberal politics than has previously been the case.
Garry Sturgess is the originator and co-creator of Liberal Rule.
A former barrister and specialist legal journalist and author, he is
currently studying for his political science doctorate at ANU. This opinion piece was also published in Australian Jewish News, 23 July, 2009