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.
The paradox in Prime Ministerial Governance from Whitlam to Howard lies in its powerful continuity. Each succeeding Prime Minister builds upon his predecessor’s legacy. There are no legacies that have been dismantled. The question this raises, therefore, is whether the Howard legacy will be permanent.
My argument is that Howard will be important for three ideas that, ultimately, underwrite his conception of Prime Ministerial Government – an expansion in executive power authorised and sustained by invoking the popular will; the re-shaping of our governance culture to incorporate the priority he attaches to economic liberalism and national security; and the upholding of parliamentary supremacy and popular sovereignty against the limitations involved in the emerging demand for a Bill of Rights.
A recurring question in this lecture is whether Prime Ministerial Government is effective in tapping the wisdom of the nation. Is it exclusive or inclusive? Are its ideas generated from within the political machine or from wider constituencies within the nation? I want to begin with an overall picture of the Prime Minister. Howard’s profile as a conservative is selective and exaggerated, far too reliant on his status as a constitutional monarchist. He believes the political system must adapt to the demands of the people and the challenges Australia faces, from globalisation to national security. Upon his retirement I suggest that Howard’s governance record will be more conspicuous for the changes he made rather than the changes he refused to make. In my view, he is best understood as a change-agent and I believe this is how Howard sees himself. In the context of the republican debate, Howard depicted himself as a ‘Burkean’ conservative, but more recently he quoted Burke approvingly saying that ‘a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation’.
Howard’s record shows him as a pragmatist, uninterested in utopian visions, but focused on change that is achievable and utilitarian. His opposition to constitutional change by referendum has disguised the extent to which he supports changes by other means. He brings two distinct views to governance. First, he thinks as a practitioner who judges governance more by its policy and political outcomes rather than as a system in its own right. He dislikes debate about abstractions or principles of governance, from ministerial responsibility to the separation of powers, and distrusts debate on governmental models. Second, Howard’s frame of reference is public sentiment and Australian values – he invokes public approval to legitimise any changes to governance that might diminish accountability or checks and balances. ‘The people’ become the justification of his prime ministership. This point is widely recognised but its full import is not appreciated.
For example, in relation to federalism, Howard has abandoned the Liberal Party’s ritualistic genuflection to State powers. In relation to his industrial reforms he invokes a higher principle, saying, that ‘the goal is to free the individual, not to trample on the States’. His guiding star, however, is public sentiment. Howard judges that State loyalties are fading and the national loyalties are growing. He is fascinated by the rise of national consciousness, what he calls the nationalisation of our society. At Rugby League State of Origin games he refuses to barrack for NSW. On talkback radio he finds that the people think national; when he travels into the regions he finds that people are looking to the national government rather than State governments. He seeks to free the Liberal Party from its emotional chains of State loyalty.
Over the years Howard’s ministers have criticised the judiciary; Howard has embraced a narrow version of ministerial responsibility; he has imposed more restrictions upon the public service; and introduced security laws that alter the balance between security and civil liberty. In each case his justification is the national interest or the will of the people. Howard re-defines existing standards and principles by resort to these arguments. In his approach to governance, therefore, he is a radical populist as well as a Burkean conservative.
It is, however, misleading to exaggerate Howard’s break from the past. He must be seen within that current of powerful continuity that constitutes Prime Ministerial Governance. Howard is no more preoccupied by executive authority than Fraser; no more hostile to the Senate than Keating; no more reliant upon ministerial staff than Hawke.
It is also important to locate Howard in his office; to perceive him as he is – not as a confected Machiavelli but as a real person working on his Prime Ministerial project. Such a picture reveals the continuity and the uniqueness in our governance. The Australian system has borrowed from Britain and America but it is unique. Howard understands this and, in turn, it is a key to understanding Howard. He has no interest in importing external ideas into our system of government – neither adaptations from the US Presidential model nor the universal idea of a Bill of Rights. The Howard prime ministership is making our governance more nationalistic, more different from and not more similar to overseas models. Howard’s instinct, so apparent yet so frequently overlooked, is to refine an Australian model.
The defining quality that Howard brings to Prime Ministerial Government is a pervasive commitment to political management. This is the hallmark of his time. It circulates like a gas through the air-conditioning, invisible yet intoxicating.
The epicentre of Prime Ministerial Government is the House on Capital Hill, opened in 1988, to house the Federal Parliament. The building is the triumph of executive power, grander than the White House. Howard arrives and leaves by car from his executive courtyard and has the instruments of his power in proximity – the Parliament, his ministers, his staff, the cabinet unit, 300 journalists and, at the foot of the Hill, the main policy departments whose public service chiefs trek up the Hill to advise and to listen.
For the Liberal and Labor parties the prize of executive power has never been so alluring. The major parties are weak, beset by falling membership, decline of voter loyalty and ideological confusions. In opposition these weaknesses are crippling, witness the demoralisation of the Liberals over 1983-96 and of Labor since 1996. The purpose of these parties now is to provide a structure and a leader to capture executive power. Without executive power, they look non-viable. In government, weakness becomes strength, demoralisation becomes empowerment and a modest leader becomes a giant killer.
The system of governance is becoming more politicised. Indeed, it can be argued that our society and our culture are becoming more politicised. John Howard is a 24/7 party politician who runs a permanent campaign. He has integrated politics into policy and administration to a degree unachieved by any of his predecessors. Howard is campaigning on behalf of his government each day, almost from the moment he completes his morning walk. Nothing could be more removed from the distant administration of Howard’s hero, RG Menzies, of whom it could be said the people knew he was there but rarely saw him.