17 March 2021

Peter Brent: “Howard’s reign can be neatly sliced in two. The first half, 1996 to 2001, was mostly characterised by a curious torpor, electoral disappointment and low-to-mediocre approval ratings. … But the 2001 election win — post-Tampa, post–September 11 — transformed all that. … Having come back from the dead, he now stood for something all right: political success. And that which was seen as his Achilles heel, an obvious discomfort with modern, multicultural Australia, was now seen as the very secret of that success. After asylum seekers were falsely accused of throwing their children off a boat in October 2001, he was finally in his element, declaring, ‘I don’t want people of that type coming into this country.’ … Out and proud, then vindicated by the election result, he never looked back. … So what is Howard’s legacy, apart from his own ludicrously overblown political reputation? During his prime ministership he would frequently opine… that one of his proudest achievements was that Australians now felt freer to discuss uncomfortable topics — by which, of course, he meant matters of race. (Since leaving office, this point has generally been absent from his retrospective boasting.) … Howard didn’t make Australians racist, but he did make casual racism respectable again… It remains enmeshed in our political sphere, precisely because it is believed to be good politics. … That is John Howard’s chief legacy, and it’s not one to be proud of.”