FORMER Australian Prime Minister John Howard spoke at a reception in London last night, after receiving his Order of Merit medal ahead of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, reliving his time in office and offering thoughts on the future.
Prime Minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007, Mr Howard was the special guest as part of the Institute’s World Leaders Series. And he would have felt right at home. The portraits of ermine-gowned British kings and queens that dominate the Nash Room at the Institute of Directors (IoD) on Pall Mall looked down upon the monarchist crusader.
The event was organised by Australian Liberals Abroad, whose enthusiastic members man the biggest polling booth at every federal election; the one at Australia House in London.
Organisers said they had been receiving calls throughout the day from those on the waiting list “crying down the phone” to be allowed to attend.
In a relaxed tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte with IoD Chief Operating Officer Andrew Main Wilson and speaking from a small chesterfield armchair that would have recalled the famous $10,000 green chesterfield lounge suite in his parliamentary office, John Howard casually addressed a 200-strong audience.
Earlier in the day, the Queen had appointed Mr Howard as a member of the Order of Merit (OM) during a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Howard is the first Australian Prime Minister to receive the award, which honours those who achieve “exceptional distinction” in the arts, learning, sciences and other areas such as public service.
It just goes to show that living at home until you are 32 is no barrier to success.
In the audience were Howard’s wife, Jeanette, and a close friend of the former Liberal leader, Ian Duncan-Smith, British Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
The event was a gathering of people with “centre-right affections,” said Mr Howard, in introductory remarks fused with humour and gravity. He would have known he was in safe company by the amount of nodding heads and beatific smiles accompanying his words.
Mr Howard spoke and fielded questions about foreign policy, finance and cricket.
As is the right of a man whose life has spanned the premiere of Gone With the Wind and the float of Facebook and who led Australia for a good decade in between, Mr Howard began the evening with a précis of what he believed to be the two most important events of the last 30 years: the end of the Cold War through the efforts of “what our side did” and the success of “globalisation [and] competitive market capitalism” in lifting millions of people out of poverty.
In a staunch defence of business, Mr Howard rallied the business-heavy audience by saying “the global financial crisis isn’t due to excesses of capitalism.”
An informal question and answer session followed in which Mr Howard seemed at ease. He even braved humour, making light of the current scandal involving the British Conservative Party’s relations to Rupert Murdoch.
On former American President George W Bush, Mr Howard praised the Texan as “a good friend of mine” but admitted that “he didn’t always present as well on television as he could have.”
In the midst of British financial gloom, the business audience was especially interested in the predictions and prescriptions of the Australian leader who many praise for having reduced national debt and kept unemployment low.
“He would have done very well here,” murmured one member of the audience.
More questions followed, including on the financial risks of “caring” and “socialist governments” in Europe and the possibility of an “Anglospheric” Union.
While at times cupping a hand to his ear like a deaf grandfather at the end of a Christmas dinner table, 72 year old Howard answered without hesitation across diverse subjects.
Mr Howard repeated his list of proudest achievements, including gun control, East Timor intervention and low unemployment. He confirmed that “getting rid of the no disadvantage test,” a contentious element of the Work Choices legislation that many attribute to his 2007 election defeat, was an error. Not because the law was wrong, Mr Howard suggested, but because it allowed unions to run a successful scare campaign.
“We left Australia a stronger, prouder and more prosperous country,” resumed Mr Howard in a perfect sound bite testifying to his political experience.
IMAGE: Former Prime Minister John Howard (AAP Image/Dan Peled)