John Winston Howard (born 1939), the prime minister of Australia, has established himself as a pro-business labor reformer and has voiced support for strengthened ties with Europe and America while integrating his nation's economy with neighboring Asian nations.
When John Winston Howard became prime minister, he brought with him extensive experience in government, leading the opposition against the political party in power. In Australia, as in many nations with a parliamentary form of government, the party with the majority in parliament runs the country. As leader of the minority Liberal Party, Howard was often the voice for the out-of-power factions and a critic of the majority Labor Party. In the March 1996 national elections, Howard's Liberal Party, in a coalition with another minority faction, the National Party, succeeded in removing the Labor Party from power. Subsequently, Howard became the political leader of the nation and has characterized himself as being in touch with the average Australian. Yet the pro-business measures he has taken as prime minister have led some to question his awareness of the problems of Australia's blue-collar workers.
John Winston Howard was born in the summer of 1939, the youngest of four boys, in a working-class neighborhood of Sydney called Earlwood. His father was an automobile mechanic who ran his own small shop. The younger Howard attended the Earlwood Primary School and Canterbury Boys' High School. Classmates later recalled that, even as a young boy, he talked about being a politician. Once he bet a friend that he would be prime minister. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Sydney. His instructors remembered him as a serious student. He was also an active member of the conservative, yet confusingly named, Liberal Party and participated in student politics at the university. Howard graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1961. He was then admitted as a solicitor of the supreme court in the Australian state of New South Wales in July 1962 and worked for a private law firm.
Howard's political career did not begin until 1974 when he won a seat in parliament representing the northwestern Sydney district of Bennelong. He has been returned to parliament in every election since then. At age 36, he became known nationwide when he was appointed the minister for business and consumer affairs during the administration of Liberal Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. In this position, Howard rewrote the Australian Trade Practices Act, which prohibited boycotts on businesses and trade unions. He also served as minister for special trade negotiations and treasurer of the commonwealth for five years. From 1977 to 1983, when the opposition Labor Party was in power, he served as finance minister. In 1982, he was elected deputy leader of the Liberal Party and, three years later, became leader of the Liberal Party. By 1987, he led his party in national elections and was, for the first time, in a position to become the next prime minister of Australia. The influential Sydney Morning Herald, however, warned that "a Howard government would be a leap in the dark" and came out in support of Howard's opponent, Robert Hawke. During the election campaign, critics of Howard questioned how he would pay for the income tax cuts he had proposed. Not surprisingly, Howard lost the election. Two years after that, he lost his position as party leader, but he remained a coalition spokesman. On January 30, 1995, however, he was returned as leader of the opposition by a unanimous vote of his colleagues.
Ousting the Established Leaders
Upon his reelection as party leader, he worked vigorously to unseat the ruling Labor Party, which had been in power since 1983. Howard gave the impression that the Labor Party and its leader, Prime Minister Paul Keating, were out of touch with the Australian people. He often pointed out Australia's economic condition. At the time, the country had amassed a record foreign debt of $180 billion and was experiencing high unemployment. He appealed to blue-collar workers who had grown disenchanted by the Labor Party. He made campaign promises that would cost six billion dollars and told voters he would ignore trying to balance the Australian budget if it meant breaking his promises. Although he talked about the issues and refrained from personal criticisms of Keating, the campaign became notable for the viciousness of the attack ads on Australian television by both sides. Nevertheless, most Australians agreed that a change needed to be made to their government. Howard's victory in the 1996 national election was the biggest for the Liberal Party since it had formed in 1944. Also, the Liberal National coalition won the biggest majority of any party in 21 years.
Howard claimed the landslide was an mandate to change 15 years of Labor Party rule. He then set about reforming labor laws that weakened labor unions and increased the power, flexibility, and efficiency of businesses. Compulsory union membership was outlawed, unfair dismissal laws were abolished, and union-negotiated pay awards were replaced with contracts negotiated at individual workplaces. The monopoly of the Maritime Union on shipping was ended. Tougher requirements were developed for those people collecting unemployment pay. Many political observers believed Howard's solutions to Australia's economic problems were rooted in his experiences as the son of a small-business owner. When accused of declaring war on organized labor, Howard responded that he had no intention of destroying trade unions but was determined to give the highest priority to policies supported by his Liberal Party.
Economic Reformer and Staunch Monarchist
Howard also said the Labor Party had left the country's finances in tatters and announced a series of economic measures. He promised to increase job opportunities and reduce the unemployment rate, which hovered above eight percent; the youth unemployment rate was 28%. Then he proposed spending cuts of eight billion dollars, the sale of the government's 50.4% stake in the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, and the sale of Telstra, a publicly-owned communications company. In addition, he promised a tax rebate for people who used private health insurance, rather than a government health plan, and proposed a new one billion dollar fund to deal with environmental problems. Yet he also angered environmentalists when he lifted the ban on the exporting of Australia's uranium reserves and attempted to raise revenue by selling uranium to Indonesia, Korea, and Japan for nonmilitary purposes.
The election of Howard also slowed Australia's growing republican movement, which supported a change in the nation's constitution that would sever Australia's links to the British monarchy. An Australian-elected head of state would replace the British monarch, the figurative head of Australia. Howard, however, is a monarchist. He believes the current relationship with the United Kingdom works well and sees no reason for change. This is in spite of opinion polls that show most Australians are against retaining the monarch as head of state.
Howard has pledged to strengthen ties with Europe and the United States but has also reassured Australians that he does not intend to reverse foreign policy. During his successful election campaign, he accused Prime Minister Keating of ignoring Europe and North America. He claimed Keating had shifted Australia's foreign policy, which had been centered around relations with the United Kingdom, Western Europe, and the United States, to one that centered on the Asian-Pacific region. He has recently made it clear, however, that he is not anti-Asian. He has stated that closer relations with Europe and the United States do not exclude the integration of Australia with Asia, pointing out that two-thirds of Australia's foreign trade is with Asia and that relationship is important. Nevertheless, he has mentioned human rights abuses in Asia, such as the existence of sweatshops where children are overworked under hazardous conditions, and has stated that Australia would not sacrifice its values and principles simply for better trade relations. He has scheduled summit meetings with Asian leaders in an attempt to open lines of communication and has had cordial relations with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, who had been a vocal critic of Australian policies when Keating was in power.
Outside politics, Howard is an enthusiastic sports fan. He takes in an occasional cricket or rugby match and enjoys playing golf and tennis. He married his wife, Janette, a teacher, in April 1971. They have three children Melanie, Tim, and Richard.
Further Reading on John Winston Howard
Bernell, David, "John Howard, " Current Leaders of Nations, Gale Research, 1996.
McLean's, March 4, 1996.
New York Times, July 10, 1987.
Wall Street Journal, September 16, 1985; October 5, 1988.
"Honorable John Howard, " PM's Homepage, http://www.pm.gov.au/athome/pmbio.htm (March 13, 1998).
"John Howard Story, " News Scripts, http://www.abc.net.au (March 13, 1998).
Stephens, Tony, "Howard the man who wins the last battle, " Sydney Morning Herald, http://www.smh.com.au (March 20, 1998).