09 November, 2009

The Honesty of Being Out of Office

Last May, Alexander Downer wrote a rather good op/ed piece, venting his frustrations over how, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, it became his job to take responsibility for every foolish Australian tourist who got themselves into trouble overseas. It was everything he could never have said in office and I don’t blame him one bit for letting it all out.

Now, his former boss, John Howard has got himself back in the news by way of an interview with the Daily Telegraph in which he criticises his successor as former PMs are wont to do a year out from the next election. Cutting through all the predictable self-justification, he does make one fair point:
"Mr Rudd will say he had the global financial crisis to handle. Well, courtesy of us he was well endowed with money in the bank.''
I’ll pay him that one. Although, according to the documentaries, The Howard Years and Liberal Rule, that surplus was probably due more to Treasurer Peter Costello, who was apparently quite annoyed that so much of the savings he had made went to fund Howard’s pork-barrelling. Costello’s skill in savings is the most likely reason Kevin Rudd invited him to be on the board of directors for the Future Fund, which probably also rankles with Howard considering there is really no love lost between him and Costello. It also should be recognised that Howard supported many of the free market assumptions that led to the financial crisis, but I certainly won’t deny that the surpluses of the Howard government left Australia better placed to handle the crisis than many other countries.

However, the thing Howard said that really leapt out at me was this:
"People knew where we stood. We didn't try and be all things to all men. ''
It echoes a talking point brought up by Joe Hockey on Q and A last week, and almost channels an utterly fatuous assertion made by John Bolton that President Bush’s first responsibility was to govern in the interests of those who voted for him rather than all citizens equally. Call me old fashioned, call me naive, but I thought it was a national leader’s job to lead the nation. The nation as a whole, not just the ones our elected officials have decided are right.

This is the paradox of representative democracy. It assumes that representatives will represent all their constituents. It raises the question of whether we truly have a democracy or just an elective, occasionally consultative dictatorship. Do we elect officials to represent us, or merely to enact their own policies on our behalf? Howard’s comment implies that he thinks it’s the latter and that he and Hockey believe that trying to please everyone as a government is something to be criticised.

What I don’t think Howard even realises, is that he has just contradicted what he said in every election victory speech except 2001.
The Australian people have given me the privilege of leading the Government of this country and I want to say it will be a government not only for the people who voted us but also for the people who voted against us. – 1996
The Government you have elected tonight will be a government for all Australians; the Government you have elected tonight will dedicate itself to the welfare of all Australian people. – 1998
We are happy, we are joyful that the verdict has been given by the Australian people but never forget the fact that governments are elected to govern not only for the people who voted for them, but also for the people who voted against them. – 2004
We all knew he wouldn’t, but he has now admitted that he didn’t even try, nor is he even kidding himself that he did try.


  1. So true. The cynic in me believes that we have an "elective, occasionally consultative dictatorship" as proven by the fact that what most politicians really care about is getting re-elected, and will grab on to any issue they think will make them popular and achieve that goal. I think there is only a small number of people in government who actually want to make the country a better place and not set themselves up for retirement.
    I would like to see a government of independants who care about the country and make decisions/vote according to what they truly believe will make the country better, not what their party tells them they have to believe/vote for. In a perfect world that could work, but it's not a perfect world and will never be so I guess I will just go back to sleep!

  2. That's another irony of the way democracies work. People talk of the "two party system" but in reality, there's no such thing. Parties are not considered in the system. It's just human nature to find strength in numbers and to gather around like-minded people.

  3. Why do you hate Australia?