The Howard Government and Contemporary Conservatism

Document Type

Conference Proceeding


Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences


School of Communications and Contemporary Arts




Errington, W., & Van Onselen, P. (2005). The Howard Government and Contemporary Conservatism. In the proceedings of the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University.


John Howard leads a government that unambiguously bears his stamp, yet his approach to government defies simple description. Howard's brand of conservatism can be differentiated from earlier forms of Australian conservatism, with its more individualistic social outlook, and lack of noblesse oblige on issues such as asylum seekers. The Howard government's approach can also be demarcated from American conservatism, where concern for budget deficits has been eschewed for the sake of cuts in taxation, and where a distinctly American approach to foreign policy puts allies such as Australia in a difficult position. The Howard government has continued the reformist tenor of its predecessor; this activist approach to government, along with an ideological predisposition towards economic deregulation sitting uncomfortably with the notion of conservatism. Howard himself claims to have liberal views on some issues and conservative views on others. It is possible, however, to trace a consistent vein of conservatism through the policies of his government by comparing the record in a range of policy areas with Howard's own comments on his political philosophy. Socially, Howard's own conservatism predominates on issues such as Aboriginal affairs, while economically liberal policies are aimed at repairing a perceived imbalance against wealth creation. The Howard government's gradualist approach to economic reform can be differentiated from that of true economic liberals such as Jeff Kennett. Other departures from conservatism can be explained by ministers seeking preferment through the introduction of widespread reforms within their portfolio, not least in the area of education, a tactic Howard himself used as treasurer. The fact that much of this reform has had the effect of centralising power is consistent with Howard's nationalist, rather than federalist, outlook. While coherent in its policy approach, the Howard government is quite different ideologically from its conservative predecessors at the federal and state level.

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