It is a great privilege to deliver this year’s Cunningham Lecture to the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, on a subject more challenging than ever: the dynamics within our system of governance. As I wrote this Lecture I reflected that it is 30 years ago this week that we witnessed the Dismissal – the product of personality conflict and defects within our system. Yet at that same time in the early 1970s we saw the birth of another phenomenon that has run unbroken for more than three decades, ubiquitous and elusive, the rise of Prime Ministerial Government. Its face has changed from Gough Whitlam to John Howard – but Prime Ministerial Government is the central organising principle of our current system.
Is this a good or bad trend for Australia’s democracy and governance? Opinions will differ – last year Justice Michael Kirby said: “Governance and good governance have attracted many definitions. But the notion remains a ‘contested concept'”. The Howard era has provoked an escalation in the debate about what constitutes good governance, a debate riddled with differences over perspective and public interest. They are unlikely to be reconciled.
In this Cunningham Lecture my goal is to describe how Australian Governance is being re-shaped and re-thought by John Howard. The reason I chose this approach is that while there is a multitude of commentary about Howard’s governance, there is little analysis of how he governs or of the ideas and approach that shape his governance or of what might become his legacy.