Howard’s legacy now a hindrance for Abbott
Tony Abbott’s affectionate cross referencing with the “golden age” of John Howard’s prime ministership is starting to be more of an embarrassment than an advantage.
So much so that the Opposition Leader, who has boasted he and 15 current colleagues were members of Howard ministries, now seems to want those days regarded simply as history.
Ancient history at that.
“But let’s face it: John Howard is two prime ministers ago. John Howard is three Liberal leaders ago. That was then, this is now. There is no going back to the past,” Mr Abbott told reporters on Monday.
Compare that to his pledge, just 10 days before, to reproduce that ancient regime: “The Howard government now looks like it created a golden age of prosperity which is lost. Our task, to which we are wholly and solely dedicated, is to recreate those great days for our country and we will.”
One minute he’s speaking of the Howard administration as if only a Homer could do it justice, the next he is patting it on the head in a patronising dismissal.
There is no doubt that aspects of the 11 years of Mr Howard’s government are warmly remembered by many voters, for the massive boost to middle class welfare, climbing house prices, the relatively calm global economy and domestic output which chugged along nicely. Plus his leadership during times of international emergency.
The man and his government were turfed out in 2007, but as decisive as that rejection was, the electorate is not totally repulsed by memories of the period which Mr Howard himself would blush at it being called a golden age.
Then again, there are still scars from the Howard years and few more visible than the political welts left by the workplace relations debate.
Tony Abbott’s task is to pick the bits of those 11 years of policy which are re-usable and ignore those which are not. It’s the sort of sifting process which makes any blanket homage to the last Coalition government look dodgy.
And Mr Abbott is not finding it easy to do, now that the Finance Review has published some frank Howard assessments delivered to a confidential briefing of Westpac executives earlier this month.
He says the economy is doing well when compared to other industrialised nations (and, while he didn’t say it, when compared to the Australia of the Howard years in terms of cash interest rates and debt to GDP at least).
This is not what Mr Abbott has been saying.
Further, Mr Howard wants a return to Work Choices and individual contracts with a no-disadvantage clause to protect workers. Mr Abbott is sprinting in the other direction to the words “work choices”.
John Howard wants an examination of putting the GST on food to help the states get more cash from the tax. Nobody is going anywhere near that one.
The tally of policy differences grows bigger when the issue of Chinese investment is canvassed (Mr Howard says bring it on, Mr Abbott and some senior colleagues are worried by it).
Mr Abbott will contest the election, expected to be held late next year, as his own man with his own policies. He will not be able to defer examination of those policies in detail for much longer.
That’s why the back references to the Howard government were once useful: They revived some of those fond memories and allowed Mr Abbott to avoid delivering his own policies by essentially telling voters, “What he said.”
Well, he can’t do that any more now Mr Howard has given his frank assessments on key matters.
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