John Howard calls for 'a sense of balance', but can he help the Liberal Party find it?

·6-min read
Mick Tsikas/AAP
Mick Tsikas/AAP

When stories about former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s secret ministerial roles emerged, John Howard was called on by all and sundry for comment. For some, Howard represents stability, convention and commonsense liberalism, a Menzies in our own time. (It is a parallel Howard has carefully cultivated).

But as it happened, Howard was available for comment (reluctantly, it seemed) because he was out promoting his new book, A Sense of Balance, published with HarperCollins Australia. That book offers Howard a powerful platform on which to speak about contemporary politics, national identity, and the state of the modern Liberal Party.

Balancing act

The essence of the 300-page tome is visible on its dustjacket. Here, a suited and serene Howard tells us that “balance” has been a formative Australian characteristic and will “safeguard our future” if we preserve that creed.

The book itself is a strange product, ranging from pointed and incisive (if sometimes provocative) discussion in the early chapters to anecdotal meandering in the later ones.

No less than 120 pages are spent reflecting on the big issues of his own prime ministership and their relevance to the present. His chapter on the Australia-China relationship, for example, is measured and even-handed; his chapter in defence of the Iraq War is far less compelling.

Like so many other conservatives, Howard blames “identity politics”, the “guilt” industry (particularly surrounding Australia’s colonial past) and modern “cancel culture” for much social ill. But he is at least unambiguous in his condemnation of former US President Donald Trump and his brand of politics – balance does not that way lead.

Read more: View from The Hill: The Liberals would be better off with Morrison out of parliament

The substance of the book is its firm intervention in debates about the modern Liberal Party. He frets about the rise of factionalism in the state organisations, lampooning for instance the tendency of NSW Liberals to schedule competing factional dinners after their state conferences.

He rails against branch stacking and argues the rise of partisan staff in political offices compounds these problems. (The number of political staff continued to expand between 1996 and 2007, we might note.)

Like NSW Labor Minister Rodney Cavalier’s Power Crisis, partisans will find uncomfortable truths in this book.

The trick, Howard says, it to get back to the “broad church” liberalism of the his prime ministerial years. It is “respect for the individual”, “free enterprise”, “strong families”, and the “international liberal order” that define modern liberalism, with the nation-state as its instrument of expression. Climate change need not be a dividing issue among Liberals, he suggests, if nuclear power is placed in the picture. And gender problems should not undermine merit as a “basic Liberal value”. The party cannot be conservative or liberal, he declares: it must be both.

The bigger picture

A Sense of Balance is the latest contribution to a distinct genre of Australian political writing – the Liberal memoir. Since the 1960s, senior Australian Liberals have used their memoirs, written usually in the calmer waters of post-political life, to shape their party’s sense of identity. Given the Liberals have long suffered from, in Gerard Henderson’s terms, a “messiah complex” and a deficient sense of their own history, these books do seem to matter.

Robert Menzies, the party’s inaugural leader and two-time political memoirist, has much to answer for in this respect. His first memoir, Afternoon Light (1967), contained relatively little about his underlying philosophical values and beliefs (other than fealty to the British Crown). In his second book, The Measure of the Years (1970), he defended particular policy actions (such as the Colombo Plan, federal support for universities, and the expansion of the resources sector) but had little to say about liberal ideology. Not even his publishers and correspondents could agree that Menzies was liberal or conservative.

In Menzies’ own telling, liberalism was about “the individual, his rights, and his enterprise”, but the state was helpful in avoiding “large-scale unemployment”, which liberals took seriously in the wake of war and depression in the 1930s and 1940s. Tellingly, he said that the Liberals and the Country Party (today’s Nationals) essentially shared the same philosophy, without specifying what that entailed.

In truth, “anti-socialism” was the only hard and fast principle Menzies emphasised in his memoirs. Beyond that, he argued, a leader’s ideas “will break” if they “will not bend”.

The party chose for itself the name “liberal”, he said in Afternoon Light, because it rejected “reactionary” politics in favour of “progressive” reform. Moderates in the party have repeatedly used this line to attack their conservative opponents in recent years. Howard acknowledges this with scepticism in A Sense of Balance.

Few Liberals wrote memoirs in the decades after Menzies, and when they did, it was usually driven by personal and leadership conflict (especially between John Gorton and Billy McMahon).

But at the end of the Howard years, they began publishing again in earnest. Former treasurer Peter Costello and shadow minister Tony Abbott quickly rushed out books with Melbourne University Publishing. The former (writing with his father-in-law Peter Coleman) set out an agenda of progressive “unfinished business”, while the latter defended but also moderated his brand of social conservatism in the form of Battlelines (2009).

The rush to print

But it was Howard and his prime ministerial predecessor, Malcolm Fraser, who dominated these literary contests. Fraser co-authored a large memoir with independent journalist Margaret Simons, launched by MUP on March 4 2010. They argued that liberalism required humanitarian compassion, respect for the rule of law, and a commitment to promoting individual liberty. Fraser and Simons used their book tour to criticise Australia’s hardline stance on asylum seekers, their fingers pointed firmly at Howard. Human rights activists and cultural influencers celebrated the book, but it was criticised for several years by The Australian.

Howard published a political autobiography, Lazarus Rising, seven months later. Howard identified himself with Menzies’ “forgotten people” – the wage-earners and professionals of the modern middle-class – and stressed the importance of the party’s “broad church” encompassing many philosophies.

The book said much about “freedom” and “fairness”, but was unapologetic about his personal brand of “economic liberalism” and “social conservatism”. Howard promoted the book everywhere from the ABC to 2GB Radio, and was lauded as a “class act” when a protester threw shoes at him and his book on Q&A.

When Malcolm Turnbull published his memoir A Bigger Picture in April 2020, he offered a classic “moderate” liberal through-line in the tradition of Fraser. Turnbull saw himself as a “true” liberal, independent and rational in thought, compassionate where possible, and committed above all to the rule of law. A Bigger Picture was shunned by the Party, but earned Turnbull significant applause at (virtual) writers festivals.

Read more: Julia Banks' new book is part of a 50-year tradition of female MPs using memoirs to fight for equality

Return to the ‘broad church’

A Sense of Balance is Howard’s third contribution to the Liberal canon, having published a book about The Menzies Era in 2014. This latest effort, though well timed, trots out the same anecdotes a little too often. Howard’s discourse on the unrepresentativeness of the modern parties is compelling, though qualified by a relatively thin offering of suggested reforms to solve the issue.

Above all, the book is about restating the case for a “broad church” form of liberalism in which moderates and conservatives each have some purchase. For the progressive reader, Howard’s cultural politics remain exasperating. But for those whose task it is to chart a course for the Liberal Party, there are meaningful prompts in this book.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Joshua Black, Australian National University.

Read more:

This research is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.