John Winston Howard was born in the Sydney suburb of Earlwood on 26 July 1939. He was the youngest of the four sons of Lyall and Mona (Kell) Howard. The family owned and operated a garage near the Dulwich Hill railway station and lived in nearby Earlwood.
John Howard attended Earlwood Primary School from 1946 to 1951. In his last year there he won a citizenship prize donated by Eric Willis, the new local member in the New South Wales parliament. Willis was a state parliamentarian for 28 years and was a mentor to John Howard. He finished school in 1956 and the following year began studying law at the University of Sydney. He had joined the Young Liberal Movement when he was 18, and at university had some involvement in student politics and debating.
He graduated with a law degree in 1961 and was admitted as a solicitor of the New South Wales Supreme Court in July 1962. He worked for leading Sydney legal firm Stephen, Jacques and Stephen. Howard was elected president of the New South Wales Young Liberals in 1962, and the next year became a member of the Liberal Party State Executive.
In the 1963 federal election, Howard managed the successful campaign of Tom Hughes for the seat of Parkes, which had been held by Labor member Les Haylen since 1943. In 1964 Howard travelled overseas. While in England he campaigned for the Conservative Party in an election that returned a Labour government under Harold Wilson.
On his return to Australia in 1965, He worked for the firm of solicitors that became later Truman, Nelson & Howard, and he resumed his place on the Liberal Party State Executive. In 1968 he won pre-selection for the State parliament seat of Drummoyne, and he and his mother moved to the electorate but he was unsuccessful in the State election.
On 4 April 1971 John Howard and Janette Parker were married. The Howard's moved into a home unit they bought at Wollstonecraft on Sydney’s North Shore. The following year Howard was elected vice-president of the State Liberal Party and took eight weeks off work to help parliamentary Liberal Party leader William McMahon in the coalition’s 1972 election campaign. In 1973 he defeated Peter Coleman in a pre-selection contest for the seat of Bennelong, the federal electorate covering Sydney’s inner north-western suburbs.
The Whitlam Labor government was returned at the May 1974 election and Howard entered parliament as an Opposition backbencher. After the coalition’s defeat in the 1974 election, He supported Malcolm Fraser in two leadership challenges against Billy Snedden. The second of these was successful and Fraser became leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party on 21 March 1975.
The coalition had control of the Senate and blocked Supply Bills in September 1975, effectively cutting off funds for government to operate. The parliament was unable to resolve the deadlock, and on 11 November 1975 Governor-General Sir John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam government and appointed Malcolm Fraser Prime Minister. Fraser then sought and was granted a double dissolution of parliament. At the federal election on 13 December 1975 voters returned the coalition government led by Malcolm Fraser and Country Party leader Doug Anthony.
John Howard became a minister at the age of 36. He had been in parliament for only 18 months, but had a decade of experience in the Liberal Party organisation. He was sworn in to the Fraser–Anthony Coalition ministry as Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs on 22 December 1975. He was one of 13 members of the ‘outer ministry’, while the Cabinet comprised 12 senior ministers. Under the leadership of Malcolm Fraser this was a very busy ministry. The Cabinet secretariat was increased, and Geoffrey Yeend took over the post of Cabinet Secretary with the new status of permanent head. His predecessor, Alan Carmody, became head of Howard’s Department of Business and Consumer Affairs.
In this portfolio Howard worked with State Attorneys-General to establish the National Companies and Securities Commission, following the report of a Senate select committee in 1975. He also directed the amendments to the Trade Practices Act that outlawed union black bans.
From 24 May 1977 Howard was also minister assisting the Prime Minister, and from 17 July he was Minister for Special Trade Negotiations with the European Economic Community (EEC). In May and June 1977 Malcolm Fraser had visited Italy, the United Kingdom, France and Germany for discussions about Australia’s difficulties with the ‘closed shop’ policies of the EEC. Howard’s task was to attempt to negotiate concessions for Australian exports to member countries.
On 19 November Malcolm Fraser requested the resignation of Phillip Lynch as Treasurer, after questions about Lynch’s financial interests in the lead-up to the December federal election. Lynch complied, though after a report on his financial affairs he was given another portfolio the following year. His successor as Treasurer was John Howard.
He was sworn in as Treasurer on 19 November 1977 at Admiralty House in Sydney. He presented the first of his five federal budgets in August 1978. During the 1970s he had moved from a protectionist to a free trade position – though this was in the new ‘economic rationalist’ mould, rather than the old program of the 1901 Free Traders. Howard’s key adviser as Treasurer was economist John Hewson, who had also advised Phillip Lynch. Howard argued unsuccessfully for a broad indirect tax, and in 1982 disagreed with Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s push for an expansionary budget with the economy worsening but an election looming.
Howard was elected deputy leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party in a party room ballot on 8 April 1982. His predecessor Phillip Lynch did not contest the deputy leadership. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser secured a double dissolution of parliament on 3 February 1983, and called the federal election for 5 March. Fraser’s strategy to go to the polls with Bill Hayden as Labor leader. This was foiled when senior Labor figures secured Hayden’s resignation and appointed Bob Hawke as leader. Bob Hawke led Labor to victory at the election. After the election, Andrew Peacock replaced Malcolm Fraser as leader of the Liberal Party.
John Howard was deputy leader of the Opposition and shadow Treasurer from 16 March 1983. In a 31 August speech to the National Press Club in Canberra, he criticised the Hawke government’s consensus approach to wage regulation, but supported deregulation of the dollar and lifting the controls on foreign investment. Howard put forward a reform program of wage-fixing that he said would ‘turn Higgins on his head’. The strategy challenged Australia’s basic wage structure developed from the decision of Justice Higgins in the 1907 Harvester case in the Conciliation and Arbitration Court.
On 5 September 1985 John Howard replaced Andrew Peacock as leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party and became Leader of the Opposition. Howard led the party at the federal election in July 1987, when Queensland National Party Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen made a bid to enter federal parliament and seek the prime ministership. The Liberal Party was unsuccessful and the Labor government was returned.
The bicentenary of the establishment of the British penal colony in Sydney was celebrated in 1988. Among the events arranged by the federal government was the opening of the new Parliament House in Canberra by Queen Elizabeth II on 9 May. This was the 61st anniversary of the opening of Canberra’s first Parliament House by the parents of the Queen, then the Duke and Duchess of York. At the end of that year, John Howard launched the coalition policy statement ‘Future Directions’.
In May 1989 Andrew Peacock successfully challenged John Howard in a leadership ballot. The party had two more leaders, John Hewson and Alexander Downer, and two more electoral defeats, before John Howard returned to the leadership on 30 January 1995. When John Howard again became leader of the Opposition in 1995, the Labor Prime Minister was Paul Keating, who had succeeded Bob Hawke in 1991, Keating had achieved an increase in Labor support in the 1993 election. With little more than a year before the next federal elections were due, Howard set about vigorously attacking the Keating Labor government, mainly on its record of economic management. Under his revitalised leadership, the Opposition coalition began campaigning on the promise of drastically reducing the Commonwealth’s increasingly heavy debt burden.
After spending 13 years in opposition (longest period the coalition had ever sat in Opposition) John Howard led the Liberal party to victory at the federal election on 2 March 1996. The win was a landslide victory for the Liberals. The party increased its House of Representatives seats from 49 to 75. The National Party, led by Tim Fischer, also increased its seats, from 16 to 19, giving the coalition a majority of 55 seats. On 11 March 1996 John Howard became Prime Minister.
The new coalition government put into place a program of sweeping economic reform, including cost-cutting in the public service and the privatisation of Telstra. Industrial relations restructuring included the replacement of award wages with direct employer–employee enterprise bargaining. Tax reform involved the establishment of a new tax system, with a broad-based consumption tax introduced in July 2000. One of the first programs introduced by the new government was nationwide gun control, with a federally funded buy-back scheme. This was in response to the mass murder of 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania, just six weeks after the government took office.
After the High Court’s 1996 ‘Wik’ decision on indigenous people’s ability to enter leasehold land where they had customary usage rights, the government legislated to restrict their access and confirm the leaseholders’ title. This aroused widespread hostility among indigenous groups and their supporters. There was controversy over the government’s plans to reduce public debt and make the economy more competitive by disposing of government-owned assets. For example, its policy of funding environmental protection by privatising ownership of its communications corporation, Telstra, aroused widespread opposition. The Senate’s eventual acceptance of the Bills permitting the sale of Telstra in June 1999 was therefore a personal victory for Howard. Forty-nine per cent of Telstra was sold in two share offers between 1996 and 1999.
The government’s determination to eliminate compulsory trade union membership and secure waterfront reform was severely tested in a long-running waterfront dispute during 1998, when a stevedoring company locked out unionists from its wharves and employed non-union labour instead. Among the most widely disputed of the Howard government’s actions during its first term in office, was its plans for introducing a tax on consumption - its proposed goods and services tax or ‘GST’. Popular rejection of the ‘GST’ had been a key factor in the Liberal-National Party electoral loss in March 1993; but Howard and his Treasurer, Peter Costello, confidently entered the elections for a second term in office with the ‘GST’ as central plank in their platform.
Despite the traditional unpopularity of new tax proposals, the government comfortably won the elections on 10 October 1998, albeit with a reduced majority. Supported by the Australian Democrats, who had demanded modification of the GST Bills, the government succeeded in persuading the Senate to accept GST legislation in June 1999. Howard saw the Senate’s approval of the legislation as the greatest triumph of his 25-year parliamentary career.
As Howard’s government grew more confident, foreign affairs and immigration became areas in which its performance increasingly came under scrutiny. Its attitude towards events such as the arrival of many boatloads of illegal immigrants, communal violence in Indonesia and Malaysia, the independence of East Timor, the continuing warfare in the Balkans following the collapse of the former Communist state of Yugoslavia, and attempts to find a peaceful solution to the troubles of Northern Ireland, attracted great attention in the news media.
Another matter for lively public and parliamentary debate throughout Howard’s Prime Ministership has been the question of Australia’s dispensing with the monarchy and becoming a republic. Although Howard is personally an avowed monarchist, he came to office promising to establish a broad-based constitutional convention to debate issues relevant to the creation of an Australian republic. In honouring this commitment, during 1997 he established a part-appointed, part-elected convention comprising many high-profile personalities and representatives of the general public.
This body met during February 1998, its deliberations attracting great public interest in Australia and elsewhere. After a fortnight’s work, it agreed on a model for a republic and method of selecting a head of state, which it then recommended to the government. The government put the convention’s proposals to the public in a referendum in November 1999, where it was rejected, as was a proposal sponsored by the Prime Minister to add a Preamble to the Australian Constitution.
The terrorist attack on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 and the new alliances and logistics of a ‘war on terrorism’ have no known precedents. The resulting ‘war on terrorism’ has had a deep effect on Australia’s international relations and on Australia’s larger defence partners. The government’s response to the crisis in East Timor marks a significant achievement of the Howard government.
When pro-Indonesian groups responded with violence after a plebiscite in 1999, which resulted in a massive pro-independence vote, Australia led a United Nations peace enforcement unit in September 1999 to restore order in East Timor. With peace achieved, and support to rebuild the country provided, parliamentary elections were held in August 2001. The independence leader Xanana Gusmao was elected East Timor’s first President on 14 April 2002.
John Howard is a firm supporter of an ‘Asia-plus’ diplomacy. This involves combining the traditional ties with Britain and Europe, the evolving relationship of the independent nations of the British Commonwealth, the defence and trade alliances with the United States, and the new focus of trade and diplomatic relations within its Asia-Pacific neighbourhood into one package.