Evaluating the extent of John Howards political genius

Document Type

Conference Proceeding


Faculty of Education and Arts


School of Communications and Arts / Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts,Technology, Education and Communications




Van Onselen, P., & Errington, W. (2006). Evaluating the extent of John Howard's political genius.


Opinion on the sources of the Howard government's political success remains polarised. Some see political genius operating: ruthless pragmatism and a centrally controlled, disciplined machine permanently in campaign mode. Others see only sheer luck - a prime minister and government that would have been short-lived and little remembered were it not for the September 11 attacks and the MV Tampa episodes as the 2001 election drew near. We argue that Howard has had his share of good and bad luck, but has also shown high levels of discipline and political learning. He learned the right lessons from his first, unsuccessful leadership period and John Hewson’s 1993 'unloseable election'. He also learned from many early mistakes his government made, including losing a series of ministerial colleagues, and increasing nursing home fees among other policy blunders. More recent policy developments employ a range of political and bureaucratic resources to ensure that the government balances consistent references to the national interest with carefully selected appeals to sectional interests. This is, however, a political balancing act that can quickly become unstuck, leaving Howard or his successor with an exhausted supply of political capital were, for example, new industrial relations laws to test the electorate’s patience.

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