Previous issues
Contact Us

Spring 2003 cover

National Observer Home > No. 58 - Spring 2003 > Articles

John Howard - Leadership and Character; Peter Costello, "the Hollow Man"

Dr. Andrew Campbell

Good leadership is based on character. Political leadership is a special type of leadership. The leader is defined by his sense of politics as a vocation, a calling, and his sense that politics has a higher purpose defined by the triad: crisis, challenge, response, all qualities requiring a specific character type with political character.

Conviction politics, value politics and wedge politics characterise conservative politicians whose commitment to core values ensures victory. Howard's political templates are instructive: Churchill, Thatcher and Reagan - the paradigm conservative conviction politicians - three conservatives whose leadership changed their countries and the world.

John Howard is testament that in politics, character is all. Peter Costello has every formal qualification to be a successful leader - except character. There is a widespread public perception that he lacks character and its complement - gravitas. Many Australians do not regard Costello as a serious person much less a serious leader. Leaders do not smirk.

A "smirk" is controlled by eight pairs of muscles on each side of the mouth. Whether a smirk is behavioural or learnt, a conscious distortion or a reflexive response to environmental stress, Costello's smirk rouses popular antagonism and is widely recognised as a public display of narcissism.

In Australian cultural style, the smirk is a gross offence against popular taste. One may excel but not boast. Such "big noting" is deemed inappropriate and, worse, condescending. The smirk violates egalitarian norms and is a form of "looking down on" the unworthy or indicating the possession of esoteric knowledge which cannot be shared. Many feel that the dignity of the office demands self restraint and not self-conferred public self-congratulation.

Costello's body language is revealing; the swagger, the posture, the hands in the pockets, the sustained yawn and slouch. During parliamentary sessions - which are watched by hundreds of thousands of television viewers in evening news programmes - Costello often displays a form of diffused aggression or contempt for his immediate and wider audience. Costello's restless movements, stretching his head sideways, looking to the ceiling, turning his head to the side and stretching, are indicative clues of: boredom.

Boredom is primarily a defence against the encroachment of its twin - anxiety. In June 2003 after Costello realised Howard would not retire as he had expected, a political commentator noted signs of political decompensation:

"The normally cocky Costello even seemed breathlessly close to a form of political hysteria, labouring over his words with long pauses, emotions barely under control."

At his strained press conference on 3 June 2003 he appeared nervous and anxious. His deep-seated sense of entitlement had been publicly exposed. The psychologically minded would have noted the symptomology of "the return of the repressed", a form of acting out of long-repressed resentment, which leads some observers to question his capacity to withstand stress in extremis: "This man is a future Prime Minister?"

Despite the fervour of his supporters (many of whom seek personal promotion and advantage), Costello is not popular. The Liberal Party is in opposition in every State and cannot guarantee him support. Costello lacks a sufficient power base; he has many opponents within the Victorian Liberals and lacks numerical support in the federal Parliamentary Liberal Party.

Costello lacks a personal constituency who would assist him to endure. He has poor support in public opinion polls: the electorate does not like him. Although superficially personable, Costello does not inspire loyalty as he does not provide inspirational leadership even by default. Consensus-driven Costello "leads by following." But politics is more than impressions management.

Did Costello really expect Howard to resign in July 2003? Costello has publicly revealed he made an earlier forceful presentation to Howard urging him to retire. There is no evidence that Howard ever promised him succession as Prime Minister. Costello's expectations were built on flimsy foundations and the most infantile of all political emotions: hope.

The Cabinet, the Parliamentary Party, the business community and the electorate wanted Howard, not Costello, as Prime Minister. Conversely, Simon Crean wanted Costello elected leader; he told us so and for once he was intelligible.

Why would Howard relinquish office for a political artefact? Howard had no intention of relinquishing to Costello. He knew the Australian people wanted stability, predicability and continuity and above all security, a concept which invokes a peculiar form of frenzy among political progressives. Howard knew a leadership change would have been destabilising to the Liberal party and Australia.


Costello came into national politics relatively late in life. Howard was born into politics. Costello looked at party politics equivocally. Although he was a student activist at Monash University, a former student associate recalled: "I could never figure out whether Peter was serious in his political activities or he was just a good actor . . . having us all on".

Costello agonised over his choice of political parties. According to his biographer, former Labor Prime Minister Whitlam was the focus of Costello's early admiration. He reportedly absolutely "adored" Gough Whitlam. Costello marvelled at the effect wrought by Whitlam's entry into a room: "everyone stopped and took notice . . . That was the way Peter wanted to be."

Costello reportedly dallied with joining the Labor Party which contrasts with Howard's life-long commitment to the Liberal party. By the time Howard finished first year high school he was set on a parliamentary career. Even then, Howard's political hero was Winston Churchill.

Costello has forgotten, or may not appreciate, that it took Howard twenty-two years to become Prime Minister. Under pressure in June 2003, Costello lacked grace. At his press conference, Costello defensively implied he would seek muted revenge on Howard by assuming a greater interest in social issues, a promise or threat that he would be more "progressive" and embarrass Howard by advocating non-conservative progressive social issues.

Costello's subsequent attempts at addressing social issues, particularly the platitudinous Henry Bolte Memorial Lecture, have been criticised as "substance-free" even by his many media advocates. His speech to the Centre for Independent Studies was not even reported.

Howard's media performances, in terms of frequency, willingness to engage with controversial issues and discuss his values and engagement in social, cultural and political critique eclipse Costello's tentative ambiguities. On the oxymoron "gay marriages", Costello has resorted to agreeing with the "legal definition". In relation to whether homosexuals should be admitted to the Anglican Church, Costello, who is an Anglican, claimed: "Well, look this is a matter for Anglican theology."

In relation to social issues, parent’s access to children, the role of the High Court, Family Court, and Aboriginal issues, which are matters of principles and values, Howard is setting the pace for Costello.

Costello's early interest in industrial relations may have been a good career move. However, although one of the four founders of the H. R. Nichols Society, Costello failed to support besieged minister Reith in the battle against the M.U.A. Costello regards so-called "controversial" issues that are issues relating to core values and beliefs, as contagious, the political equivalent of the S.A.R.S. virus.

Costello has not tackled the biggest issue; tax reform that is genuine, with tax cuts and a revision of Australia's labyrinthine tax laws.

Costello's Zelig-like conversion to a model of a republic with a president endorsed by two-thirds of Parliament was intended to outflank Howard's pro-monarchy views. It is difficult to imagine a more destabilising scenario than the republican model proposed by Costello, but he is not foolish enough to believe it will ever be implemented. Costello appears prepared to accept any brief - for himself.


Maturity is character's endgame. The political leader builds character by surviving temptations, challenges, betrayal and crises from within and without; leaders are not weakened by periods of exile or time in the political wilderness. As heroes they return strengthened, tested by fire.

Howard's critics allege that his age is a disadvantage; they are mistaken. In the post 11 September environment, mature leaders are valued. Experience counts. Was there a young version of Mayor Giuliani in New York? After 11 September the youthful Clinton was increasingly seen as sociopathic. Two-tone shirts were hurriedly packed away. Yuppies seemed suddenly dated, if not dangerous. The ethic of responsibility returned. Howard predicted the time would be right for him. He was correct.

The historical record is instructive. Ronald Reagan, President at 69, retired at 77. Churchill, Britain’s war time Prime Minister at 66 and again at 77. Adenauer, the political architect of Germany's post-war reconstruction, Chancellor at 73, left office at 87.

Many of the parliament press gallery claim that Howard should "go" and make way for the younger Costello. They "feel" that a younger man should be Prime Minister on the basis of their generational affiliation and their hatred of Howard’s conservative values.

Never has a Prime Minister been vilified and hated by the elites as much as Howard. He is accused of "wanting to set the clock back" and suppressing the unpleasant features of Australian history.

The unelected "elites" who profess to speak "for the people" of Australia depict Howard as a racist, reactionary, opportunist who advocates a return to the 1950s, the person who personally designed and built every white picket fence and wanted a Morphy Richards toaster in every Australian home. Howard however is unabashed in his praise of the Menzies period:

"I think of the Menzies period as a golden age in terms of people. Australia had a sense of family, social stability and optimism during that period."

Conviction politicians and conservatives generally understand the importance of history as the crucible of traditions. Howard was personally and politically concerned that Keating and his tape recorder, speech writer Donald Watson, was the only leader in a Western country who was attempting to rewrite national history as he pointed out in 1996:

"The black arm band view of our past reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. I take a very different view".

Howard was concerned that generations of Australians, including members of his family who had died serving overseas, were being subject to historical defamation and being written out of Australian history by a coterie of hired propagandists.

Howard determinedly rejected the black armband view of Australian history, describing it as "one of the most insidious developments in Australian political life". He rejected the accusation that Australia was an "irredeemably racist country". In 1996, he pointed out, "We are in the grip of stifling orthodoxies, like political correctness . . . We are so often confronted with a cartoon version of the past."

Howard understood that the political strategy behind the Keating-Watson rewriting of Australian history had nothing to do with historio-graphy. It was the promotion of the "Big Lie." The black armband view of history was a political strategy to de-authorise the Liberal Party and establish the Labor Party as the "natural" ruling party of Australia, the genuine repository of national consciousness and traditions and the sole source of political legitimacy.

Parallel to the Keating-Watson project of rewriting Australian history were the Labor Party's Nazi style political defamation campaigns against Howard. Dr. Goebels, the Nazi propaganda expert would have been proud of their craft. No Australian politician has been subject to serial and sadistic dehumanising attacks as Howard. The intention: to make Howard into a political blame object, an "enemy of the people", a non-person, by depicting him in almost sub-human terms by focusing on his hearing problems, his hairstyle, glasses and his eyebrows.

Howard has been described by his detractors as a "cartoonist's delight", that is a delight to Australian cartoonists who curiously are invariably leftist and anti-Liberal.

Paul Keating, one of the great bullies of Australian politics, boasted to his amanuensis, Donald Watson, that he "would drive an axe into Howard's chest and lever his ribs apart". In ordinary circumstances such language would form the basis of further investigation.

Character and civility frame conviction politics. One does not disparage a vocation. Unlike Keating, Howard would never indulge in the sneer, the laugh, the personalised put-down, the knowing contemptuous gaze, the quip at another's expense, the group laughter of the media pack.

Keating was one of the many politicians who threatened Howard with violent political death. He failed. There have been many others who have suffered political death - the cause of death: underestimating Howard.


Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has been especially bitter in his condemnation of Howard and his government. The treatment of refugees and aboriginals has been foremost in his criticism. In relation to the aboriginal problem, Howard follows the medical motto "does no harm". He refuses to apologise as he does not believe in "intergenerational guilt".

Any fool can - and many did - walk over a bridge in favour of reconciliation. Costello's walk for aboriginal reconciliation in Melbourne was meant to embarrass Howard. He failed. Fraser and Keating are failed Prime Ministers - there may be a lesson there for Costello to ignore.

Many Aboriginal communities are now characterised by high rates of drug addiction, child abuse, drunkenness, poor basic facilities and violence. Howard realises that a primary cause of the aboriginals’ plight is not "racism" or land rights as the romantic primitives and politically correct insist, but rather the core issues of social control, anomie and order in aboriginal communities.

Howard rejects both a Treaty and an apology "which would entrench the plight of the Aborigines". Key aboriginal leaders are urging Howard to stay in office and avoid a relapse (in their words) into "progressivist platitudes about symbolic reconciliation and walking bridges".

Fraser's role as a taxpayer funded "social progressive" is fuelled by his awareness that Howard privately regards his period in office as a lost opportunity. Fraser has attacked Australia’s, (read Howard’s), role in support of A.N.Z.U.S., American foreign policy, aboriginal policy and land rights. Envy, the heartbeat of politics, is especially relevant. Howard has achieved a popularity that Fraser could only fantasise about, and Fraser's attacks rest largely on envy.

Even Howard's bitter foes admit he has formidable political energy. He conducts a working day which would cripple many younger people. Howard has the energy and application of a vocational politician.

Howard's greatest and least celebrated political asset is his wife Janette, a redoubtable and subtle influence who casts a cold eye on the inter- and intra-party machinations which have plagued her husband's career. Her political judgment is shrewd and timely, and her regrett-ably rarely reported remarks on the conduct of Howard's colleagues who, at critical points, betrayed her husband are close to being uncanny. Janette Howard, like her husband, is a monument to character.


Howard enjoys a singular advantage over his chattering class foes in the A.B.C., the universities and the media. He understands them. Howard's favoured form of revenge is a triad of research, understanding and therefore effective targeting. But his secret weapon, which he would probably deny, is sociological - verstehen - understanding.

Prior to the 1996 elections Howard was influenced by his reading of American cultural critic Christopher Laschs’ The Revolt against the Elites, a book he recommended to inquiring journalists which helped him to explore the political implications of the elite-mass gap under Keating's rule.

Howard is in fact better read than many of his critics. His appeal to normality and to "mainstream Australia" against the claims of the chattering class is his greatest electoral asset.

He opposes the legalisation of drugs, heroin trials, single sex marriages and unrestricted immigration. He does not regard the family as the cause of all social evils and is proud of the "Protestant ethic being very strong in our family". These are Howard's convictions, and his life-long subtle hostility to the Labor Party echoes the American Republicans’ gibe: "Democrats aren't normal". In the Australian context, it is the Labor Party that is "out of touch" with Australians.

Howard takes the cultural wars seriously because he is aware that culture is the matrix of character. An Australia which did not believe in its own history would not likely to be a country prepared to defend itself.


Howard has been criticised for appointing loyalists to his staff and has monitored and vetoed appointments carefully. Who would blame him after the history of leaks in Canberra over the past three decades and especially as no person who has leaked information to the media or Labor Party has ever been successfully prosecuted?

David Barnett, Howard's biographer, referred to the greatest challenge facing Howard from the Keating government's deliberate politicisation and subversion of the rules of public service conduct. This

"arose from the subversion of national institutions over thirteen years of A.L.P. government . . . The leaking of the 1996 budget deliberations was a demonstration of the extent to which large areas of the Australian public service were prepared to engage in the sabotage of an elected government."

In the first week of his government Howard effectively ensured the removal of two of his most hate-filled opponents in the senior levels of the Department of Foreign Affairs. In his first term Howard conducted an overdue lustration of the Commonwealth public service. One-third of departmental heads were dismissed or resigned.

Howard was well briefed and personally aware of the many Labor Party activists in the public service who leaked documents to their media and Labor Party mates and viewed their positions in elite levels of government as a means of promoting political careers. Many senior bureaucrats who had acted as Labor Party moles protested that they had proven records of support for the government of the day. They were, of course, dissembling.

Ignoring advice from the security service, Fraser was consistently undermined by a senior member of his personal staff who passed information to his former Department of Foreign Affairs "mates". Typically Fraser is unaware of his identity and role to this day. Howard was determined not to repeat Fraser's serious errors of judgment in staffing matters especially regarding staff with access to sensitive information. Many Labor party activists and sympathisers in government sneered privately at Fraser's naivete.

Costello too is "tolerant" and has publicly boasted he would never even dare to question the loyalties and conduct of his staff. Howard, however, would not appoint a known Labor Party supporter to his personal staff as Costello has done. Costello cannot even choose his enemies carefully.


Character is especially important in foreign affairs - the playground of monsters. Howard's greatest critics are the Foreign Affairs establishment whose record in defending Australia's interests and secrets is abysmal. Their claim is familiar: that Howard ignores their advice.

In 1996 Howard declared he had no interest in foreign affairs. His modesty in this regard is misunderstood, for he meant that he had not applied his characteristic focus to foreign affairs. He has since done so and the results are impressive despite the carping of critics. East Timor is no longer a politically and socially divisive issue. The security treaty Keating signed with Soharto has crumbled in the dust.

With the zeal of the autodidact, Paul Keating (assisted by a self-seeking Gareth Evans) sought engagement with Asia, but in human and international relations engagements rarely last. The Labor Party nomenklatura and the foreign policy establishment, if one can tell the difference, chanted that Howard ignored the fact that Australia was "part of Asia".

Howard knew that Asian leaders did not expect him to be Asian, whatever that term may mean, and were aware that Australia was not "part of Asia" except in terms of geography and contiguity, and in Howard's words: "Australia has profound and enduring links with Europe . . . If Australia starts disowning her history, or disowning her values, or changing her institutions, simply because we think countries in the region will respect us more for doing so, then we will be badly mistaken."

The Chinese leaders knew that in Howard they were negotiating with an experienced negotiator who had served as Minister for Special Trade Negotiations in 1977. Keating boasted of his personal ties and during the 1996 election campaign claimed that Asians would not deal with Howard. But only Howard could have secured a $25 billion L.N.P. deal with China. Only Howard could have proposed regional initiatives, such as Australia's new role in Pacific and the Solomon Islands intervention.

Howard's critics claim he does not understand "Asian values". But Asian leaders and elites generally have conservative value orientations and recognise in Howard similar beliefs in family values, caution, prudence and order.

Character prevailed. Howard told his hosts that Australia was not an Asian country and they nodded in agreement. Howard was aware that Keating's engagement with Asia was an attempted magician's trick. Keating and the Foreign Affairs establishment hoped to achieve their prized objective - weakening Australia's relations with the United States without being caught! and thereby avoiding electoral retribution.

Keating promoted the so-called Security Treaty with Indonesian dictator Suharto as in his words: "Indonesia was more important than the United States to Australian security".

But Howard learnt more of the realities of international relations than his critics on 11 September, the day of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. He returned from New York a changed man. He was now a post 11 September leader.


The Labor Party is now led by bumper-sticker radicals, imbued with pathogenic anti-Americanism. Even Keating's court historian Donald Watson recently called for the restoration of "character" in the Labor Party, which he defined as "who you are and what you stand for."

Without a trace of irony, Watson demonstrated the intellectual bankruptcy of the Labor Party by referring to the great nineteenth-century English wit and dramatist Oscar Wilde as the source of inspiration for the Labor Party.

Wilde, Watson wrote wistfully, was a "neo-Hellenist", he was "for art, for pleasure . . . for boundless possibility . . . Labor needs a philosophy . . . Nothing comprehensive: just a few sentences that reveal what it thinks about the way things are . . . Wilde's analysis was pretty right . . . and Modern Labor could do worse than listen now".

Oscar Wilde as a political theorist and model for the Labor Party! Howard's dominance of the Australian political scene is complete, and to paraphrase Wilde, one would have to have a heart of stone not to die laughing at the idea of Simon Crean as prime minister.

Howard has outperformed all of his political enemies within the Liberal Party and the Labor Party. His personal and political popularity in the electorate has never been higher. Here is the dilemma. Character in politics is rare. In the event of Howard's retirement from politics will there be a leader of sufficient character to replace him?

Howard is seemingly secure but the hollow men coveting the rewards that only character deserves are whispering together as wind in dry grass. For the study of character in politics reveals three truths: those who have no values are the eventual prisoners of others, the possession of character breeds relentless enemies, and those who have poor or little character will ceaselessly try to tear down the strong, the decisive, those with values and beliefs. One of the most critical questions facing Australia is whether political character - John Howard - prevails over the Hollow Man, Peter Costello.

National Observer No. 58 - Spring 2003