Australia has always had a hold on me, for reasons I still can’t fully name. And for nearly all my adult life, the man in charge of Australia has been John Howard. Even though I mostly disagree with his politics, I’ve always had a soft spot for Howard because he is a fellow cricket nut. That is why I was excited to be part of a small group of students that got to chat with the former Prime Minister for a couple of hours.
Howard’s childhood is a pointer to his personality and nature. His father was a gas station owner who fought in World War I. The household was conservative and politically conscious but largely adhered to a “hard-working small-business Protestant ethic”. Thus, it’s no surprise that the government he ran was “economically liberal and socially conservative – but liberal in the classical sense of free markets and little government intervention”. (The notion of conservatism in Australia is of course different from the United States. Howard was able to introduce gun control because Australians lack the “entitlement mentality when it comes to owning guns” that Americans possess. He claims that it was this policy that reduced the high homicide rates in Australia).
The conversation was wide-ranging but serious, dealing with the EU (Howard can’t fathom how nation states can give up soverignty to a larger entity), apologizing to the Aborigines (one generation cannot be held responsible for the sins of another), Fiji (“they seem to have fallen into a holding pattern of coups; the last one was even telegraphed in advance”), and Indonesia (needs to be commended for resisting “Islamic fascism”).
But I couldn’t resist introducing a lighter tone by asking about cricket. In some ways, just the fact that I get to ask a cricket question to Australia’s second-longest serving Prime Minister was in itself the enjoyment. “It is sometimes said”, I began, “that the second most important job in Australia, after the Prime Minister, is that of the captain of the Australian cricket team.”
“Nah, mate, that’s the most important job”, Howard barked back at me as the Australians chuckled and the Americans looked bewildered. “It’s certainly the most respected job”, inserted an Australian student; I’m not sure whether that was a pointed jibe at Howard or not, but the former PM grinned in response.
“I know you are a serious cricket fan”, I continued. “So, Mark Taylor or Steve Waugh, who was the better leader?” Now all the Australians cracked up for real. Howard paused for a moment and then chose the diplomatic route. “I can’t choose between them, they both had their strengths. Taylor had flashes of tactical brilliance. Waugh was tenacious and really grew in his job. I know them both and they’re very good men. I can’t separate them.”
The final question from the moderator was, of course, on what advice Howard had for the rest of us. He said three things: First, before you go into politics, do something else well. This will give you real world experience that is invaluable in the legislative process. Second, don’t succumb to the cynicism about public service. It’s the most rewarding thing you can do. And third, understand the debts you owe to the people who get you to where you are.”