Lazurus Rising

Lazarus Rising (2010) by John Howard is the memoir of Australia’s second longest serving Prime Minister. It’s an important book about the politician who is the most important political figure in Australian political since Robert Menzies. The book makes the reader realize that the Howard era, his time in parliament from 1974 to 2007, covers the reform period of Australian government and that Howard was the single most important figure of that time, attempting to start the reforms under Fraser, supporting them under Hawke and Keating and then finishing the project as Prime Minister. This book, along with Peter Costello’s The Costello Memoirs are both very much worth reading for anyone who is serious about understanding Australian politics.

The book starts off by describing Howard’s family and his upbringing. His parents were small business people who cared deeply about their 4 sons and their education. The 4 sons were all bright, worked hard and succeeded. It is the idealized Australian dream writ large. Howard studied hard and managed to get a law degree from Sydney University despite being disabled with hearing loss.

The book then covers Howard’s rise to obtain pre-selection and then the seat of Bennelong. There are the requisite sections on the dismissal. There is an amusing quote from Malcolm Mackerras about how the public would react to Whitlam’s sacking and turn against the Liberal Party.

The view of the Fraser government and Howard’s remarkable rise to treasurer is interesting. Howard says that the Fraser government lacked financial discipline and that this cost them in the end. It is interesting to note that it was at this time that Howard became convinced of the need to make Australia’s economy more responsive to market signals. It is surprisingly late. Howard also has no problem as seeing this as easily being Liberal Party tradition. The Liberals were always the party that favored the market more than the ALP and as the failure of the Keynesian managed Western economies was apparent in the 1970s it was natural that they should adopt these policies.

The next section deals with the Hawke and Keating governments and Howard’s first time as opposition leader. Howard clearly admires and respects Hawke. Howard’s view of Keating is different as Howard was subject to Keating’s viciousness on a number of occasions but clearly Howard still respects him. Howard is, of course, at pains to point out that the difference on reform is that the Liberals supported the ALP while when in opposition the ALP undermined economic reform and lost their credentials as being in favor of more market oriented policies.

Howard’s battles with Peacock are interesting to read about from his perspective. The strange Peacock resignation appears to be the key to the long running dispute. The ever amusing Joh for PM run is described as wrecking Howard’s chances in the 1987 election and the run in with John Elliot is well elaborated. Howard’s view of Hewson’s unsuccessful run at becoming PM is more friendly and respectful than Costello’s in his book.

Most of the book is on Howard’s role as PM. He deals with each of the major issues that confronted him. The waterfront reforms, the gun law changes, the GST, Iraq, Asylum Seekers, East Timor, Workchoices and the rise of Pauline Hanson. Howard’s relationships with George Bush is given some prominence, Howard clearly liked Bush on a personal level. He was also aware of the differences between the Liberals and the Republicans and how they could still get along. It’s interesting to think about an Australian conservative PM calmly saying one of his most important reforms was gun buyback. The contrast is even greater when you think that Howard’s greatest achievement was to bring in a new tax in the face of populist opposition.

Howard’s view of his final years provides a very different view of the possible Costello rise to become PM. Howard believes that Costello was less able than he was to win an election. He also makes the point that Costello had little support in the party as he was aloof and arrogant toward less important politicians. It really does raise the issue of whether Costello could have won. Keating, who played a similar role to Costello, only won an election against a very inept Liberal leader. Keating never had the popularity of Bob Hawke. It is a reasonable point to assert this was also true of Costello. Howard does not consider how good his leadership would have looked had he left on his own terms as only Menzies, albeit after longer in office, managed. Costello and Howard’s books are also notable for civility compared to the rancor of the conflict between Hawke and Keating regarding their record. This may change in future but so far it appears that the Liberals have been wiser than their ALP predecessors. ‘

Howard writes a little about his ALP successors, making the interesting point that when Gillard removed Rudd that Rudd was considerably more popular than Howard at several points in Howard’s reign. He views Rudd as Costello did as being fundamentally out of his depth. Howard also sees the economic reform process as ongoing. He doesn’t acknowledge that Australians may have decided the current situation is as far as they want to go. The historic rejection of Workchoices as the first part of the economic reform agenda to have been overturned is not given much regard.

The style of the book is plodding (like these reviews) but it’s well worth reading (hopefully like my reviews). Howard comes across quite humbly. The book isn’t as good as Costello’s. Costello’s book is better written and tighter, partly because it’s about a smaller time frame. But Howard’s book is a good summary of Howard by Howard.


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