The wizard of Oz
Published in: Daily Mail
To British eyes, John Howard would seem as unlikely as a bicycling banana -- the phenomenon of an apparently unbeatable conservative election-winning machine.
Because the hugely popular Australian Prime Minister carries all before him, the LabouOpposition appears to be nowhere. Touring areas of North Queensland devastated by a cyclone last spring, Mr Howard was swamped by enthusiastic schoolchildren, mobbed by crowds and given a standing ovation at a public meeting.
Eat your heart out, David Cameron. While Britain's Tory leader pursues his daring attempt to regain power after three consecutive General Election defeats by junking vast swathes of Conservative baggage, John Howard has emerged as the most successful conservative politician of modern times. And he has done so by embodying the very opposite of the image-obsessed, soundbiteladen gimmickry that now drives British politics.
For Mr Howard is the very personification of dullness. He could easily pass for an elderly country solicitor, with neither a designer trainer nor an iPod to be seen anywhere near his conventionally suited person.
Not only that, but he is also a political retread, having been dumped as his party leader in 1989 before returning to the top job six years later. Yet now he is an electoral force of nature.
So how has he done it? And what lessons are there for our own Conservative Party?
In short, Mr Howard embodies the characteristics of true leadership -- and these have little to do with charisma, with which it is often confused. With a record punctuated by fierce controversy, he is nevertheless trusted and admired as a result of sticking to his guns -- and staying faithful to clearly understood, bedrock conservative principles and not trimming them or ditching them altogether in favour of the fashions of the day.
Since taking office in 1996, he has broken decisively with the socialist doctrines that were previously running Australia into the ground. Not for him any tiptoeing around welfare, out of terror of being depicted as heartless.
He has cut taxes, restructured labour markets and presided over the longest economic boom in the country's history, with living standards higher than any of the world's largest economies except the U.S.
Unemployment is at a 30-year low; inflation is under control, the federal budget is solidly in surplus and net government debt has been eliminated. He has shown the same political toughness in even more contentious areas. He is a staunch ally of U.S. foreign policy, and has taken uncompromising stands on anti-terrorism laws and Muslim integration.
In 2001, his government introduced eye-wateringly tough immigration laws to stop the boat people, would-be immigrants from Indonesia who tried to enter Australia illegally by arriving in small boats and many of whom were sent to detention camps on small islands in the South Pacific while their claims were processed.
Despite enormous controversy and accusations that Mr Howard was playing the race card, the policy was popular with the public who were very concerned that Australia's immigration policy was being abused to admit immigrants who were breaking the rules and who also did not conform to Australia's traditions of integration.
In an era when it is fashionable to deride the very idea of the nation state as a dangerous and prejudicial anachronism, Mr Howard stands out as a leader who believes in his country and in defending its integrity. As a result of this total absence of equivocation in upholding the national interest, the public feel safer with him than with any other politician.
Just compare and contrast this with the strategy being employed by our own Conservative Party. Needing to woo the same kind of people facing the same kind of fears and insecurities, it has decided that such an approach will lose it yet another election.
It has concluded that what the nation wants most of all -- in an era of unprecedented insecurity -- is for its leaders to be nice people.
Mr Howard, by contrast, has understood that what his nation wants most of all is to feel safe, in an orderly country that will not buckle under the pressure of moral blackmail and that will robustly stand up to threats of any kind.
That's not all. Unlike our own politicians, Mr Howard has rolled up his sleeves and waded in to fight those trends which threaten to undermine or destroy the values of his country.
Look, for example, at the difference in the approach to education. As in Britain, the multicultural rot has penetrated deep into Australian society. In Britain, schools not only teach that the Empire was racist and fail to teach the history of this country, but are now even proposing to abolish teaching the difference between right and wrong.
In Australia, Mr Howard has taken a lead in denouncing such a failure to transmit the culture of his country. He has called for a 'root and branch' overhaul of the way history is taught in Australian schools, and said pupils should have 'some understanding' of British and European history, the Enlightenment and the influence of Christianity on Western civilisation. Oh -- and he also wants to see pupils saluting the Australian flag at morning assembly, a practice last seen in the Sixties.
His education minister duly announced a return to the narrative form of history, free of political interpretation, and accused politically correct educators of hijacking history, presenting Australia's past through a filter of Marxist, feminist and Green interpretations. 'There is too much indoctrination and not enough pivotal facts and dates,' she said.
Can you imagine our Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, saying anything like this? And if he were to do so, does anyone doubt that the entire intelligentsia would start screaming about 'cultural imperialism' and 'thought control' -- and that the politicians would beat a hasty and immediate retreat?
As in Britain, Australia's chattering classes worship at the shrines of ultra-feminism, minority rights, victim culture and all the other isms and ideologies that have steadily wrecked our own society.
Mr Howard is squaring up to this cultural ultra-Leftism -- more commonly known as political correctness -- and facing it down. His counterparts in Britain, by contrast, queue up to abase themselves before it.
He is in tune with the people of his country because he loves it for what it is and will defend it from all attempts to hurt or undermine it, both from within and without.
What a contrast with Britain, where politicians either want to ditch their own principles for short-term gain or transform the country altogether into some ideological nirvana.
The British political class is terminally unpopular. Mr Howard is feted the length and breadth of Australia. As they say across the ocean, go figure.
If our politicians really want to reverse the dangerous tide of public cynicism and disaffection with politics, they should look at Australia to see that -- astounding to relate -- when politicians connect with reality, they actually win elections.