How honest is John’s version of history?
The Punch will be live blogging the former Prime Minister John Howard’s appearance on the Q&A program this evening. You can join in from 9:30 PM AEDT.
Journalist and historian Ben Macintyre has described the modern political memoir as the “last draft of politics, not the first draft of history”.
In this piece for The Times Macintyre asserts that the political memoir has ceased to be an historical assignment, and is now primarily a political one that attempts to rush out a subjective view of almost current events lest others do it for you.
There no better example of this phenomenon than John Howard’s memoir Lazarus Rising, and no better example in the book (or at least the parts we’ve had access to) than Howard’s account of why he chose to stay on.
Howard’s account of why he stayed on is internally inconsistent and would fold under some pretty mild cross-examination. In fact at one stage Howard appears to construct and then take apart his own argument.
If we cut to the pointy end of events, that is mid-2006, Howard wrote in extracts published in The Weekend Australian on Saturday that he was still intending to resign at around Christmas 2006:
My wife Janette and I kicked the issue around, and I concluded that it would be in the party’s best interests, all things being equal, if I retired before the 2007 election, giving my successor, who I assumed would be Costello, plenty of time to establish himself.
From early 2005 this became my working assumption; it was not set in cement—nothing like that ever could be—but it was to remain my working assumption until blown apart by the events of July 2006.
This event was the July 2006 News Limited story revealing that a “deal” had been struck between Howard and Costello in 1994 for Howard to hand over the Prime Ministership after two terms. Despite the story coming courtesy of former frontbencher Ian McLachlan, Howard saw Costello’s fingerprints all over the story:
He had cast his bread upon the waters. He hoped that the drama surrounding the 12-year-old story would shake things up about the leadership, and to his advantage.
Howard says this decision was a fatal ploy by Costello who had decided neither to challenge nor to wait for his intended retirement (despite the fact admits he hadn’t told anyone except his wife of this intention). This changed everything for Howard. There was no way he would be seen as cowardly leader pushed out by a clumsy media putsch from Costello:
To have gone in the wake of the Milne story about the December 1994 meeting would have had history recording that I had been forced out by the revelation of a broken deal, no matter how untrue that might have been. I was never going to allow that to happen.
Here Howard is admitting that it was effectively his ego that stopped him from retiring by 2006. If he had come to the conclusion that it was in the best interests of the Coalition - and by his extension the nation – that he give Costello about a year before an election why should it matter what history would record? As biographies like Howard’s teach us, political history is rather malleable and he would have had ample opportunity to correct the record.
The rationale becomes more confused when he starts talking about options to step down in 2007. Howard says that at the time, looking at levels of dissatisfaction with him and the Government, he would’ve stepped down if the cabinet ministers had asked him to go. Incredibly the test was that they do so publicly as well:
I had made a serious mistake in asking that Downer sound out the cabinet members. The continued bad political news had affected my judgment. In retrospect, the idea of changing the leader in those circumstances, that close to the election, was preposterous.
There was never any prospect that my cabinet colleagues would publicly request me to resign. The majority of the parliamentary party members still wanted me to lead them to the election, despite our dire electoral position.
So Howard even rebuts his own rationale for the possibility of a change in 2007, accepting it was a pretty ridiculous standard. What do we learn? Howard never wanted to step down at any point during his Prime Ministership.
None of this is say Howard was wrong in his assessment that Costello was never entitled to the Prime Ministership, and that Costello should’ve either waited or challenged. But Howard’s rationale does present the perfect example of Macintyre’s point that “these books are not so much record-straightening accounts as acts of political self-defence and self-justification; both historical insurance and lucrative investment.”
Howard’s odd logic on the leadership, the tit for tat that has emerged between Howard and Costello, Howard and Kennett, on the front pages demonstrates that memoirs like Howard’s (and Costello’s effort last year while still an MP), contribute more to the contemporary media and political cycle than they do to history. Which is fine, but it’s just the gospel according to John.
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