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Autumn 1999 cover

National Observer Home > No. 40 - Autumn 1999 > Editorial Comment

Leadership and Mr John Howard

A concern has arisen that Mr. John Howard, the Prime Minister, has been distancing himself too much from the decisions of his government and has not been prepared to show adequate leadership on important issues. In general he appears to have been over-concerned to limit his public interventions to those that are politically correct or that are likely to show him in a favourable light.

That this should be so is unfortunate. As Prime Minister Mr. Howard is not in the position of an independent chairman. As the head of government he is expected to take a leadership position on important issues. He is not entitled to the luxury of seeking to be above the fray, or of making easy statesman-like speeches on uncontroversial topics whilst standing back from the more important, but often controversial or even unpopular, issues that face his government.

Over the last three years especially, Mr. Howard has been able to develop an image of decency. But the pursuit of this image, at the cost of not prosecuting or supporting appropriate measures, may ultimately be perceived as involving a dereliction of duty.

Recent examples of this approach are seen in regard to tax reform and waterfront reform. Both government proposals in these areas are very controversial. For example, the tax reform package that was the most important policy debated in the 1998 Federal election is generally understood to have many unsatisfactory features, and it has generated intense and partisan debate. Mr. Howard hence chose to let his Treasurer, Mr. Peter Costello, bear the responsibility for the tax package; and likewise he has let his Cabinet colleague, Mr. Peter Reith, bear the brunt of expected criticisms of new waterfront policies.

Mr Howard and the Republican Debate

A perceived further example of lack of leadership by Mr. Howard relates to proposals for an Australian republic.

On the one hand, Mr. Howard has made it plain that personally he favours the retention of the constitutional monarchy. In this he has been moved by the fact that the current system operates satisfactorily and has no serious disadvantages, whereas the nature and consequences of a republic would be problematic. These views are shared by many other Australians, and it is by no means clear that proponents of a republic would be successful in a referendum, whether now or in the immediate future. What views may prevail in the more distant future it is not easy to tell.

But on the other hand, Mr. Howard has indicated that he personally will not take a leadership role in public discussion and debate leading up to the expected referendum on a republic later this year. Rather he will maintain his own personal position, but will not actively support his view that a constitutional monarchy should be retained. In this he must be contrasted with Mr. Kim Beazley, the Leader of the Opposition, who is taking a strongly pro-republic position (not unexpectedly, in view of the anti-British or anti-establishment attitudes of so many of his party). Likewise Mr. Howard must be contrasted with those members of the Liberal Party who, perceiving a degree of movement of public opinion towards a republic, have been anxious to identify themselves publicly with what they have thought to be a winning cause (although their enthusiasm has recently in many cases been diminished by subsequent predictions that the referendum will not in fact be carried).

In contrast, Mr. Howard has indicated that he will campaign actively in favour of a second referendum issue, for the replacement of the preamble to the Constitution Act by a new preamble that will recognise the pre-1788 presence by Aboriginals in Australia.

Why will Mr. Howard campaign in favour of this "politically-correct" issue, whilst standing back from the more important but controversial republic issue? This quesion raises issues of general importance. Mr Howard must not neglect his public duties for the sake of personal prestige.

National Observer No. 40 - Autumn 1999