Steph Nash chats with ex-PM John Howard about his latest book, The Menzies Era

John Howard’s new epic, The Menzies Era, is quintessential Howard. It’s deeply critical of economic practices and political ideologies, and full of respect for Australia and its history, epitomising Howard’s undying sense of patriotism.

“We should look back with great pride on our history, and we should understand, like any other country, that we’ve made mistakes. We haven’t always got it right, but the great balance sheet is one of colossal Australian achievement,” Howard says.

Howard has played his part in this grand narrative. As Australia’s second-longest serving Prime Minister, he oversaw a period of strong growth, which saw the nation free of a near-$100 billion debt, instituted a goods and services tax, restructured industrial relations and embarked on a – sometimes highly contentious – foreign policy provoked by the events of September 11, 2001.

Howard is justifiably proud of his legacy. He sounds, though, almost prouder of the legacy of his hero and predecessor Robert Menzies.

“There are two reasons why I think Robert Menzies was an iconic Australian Prime Minister. He lasted longer than anybody else, and he achieved a mastery over the era in which he was Prime Minister that probably nobody else has,” Howard says.

“And I think more importantly than that, many of the foundations of modern Australia were laid during his time.”

The Menzies Era, Howard’s second book following the release of his 2010 autobiography Lazarus Rising, is an ode to Howard’s well-known love for the political heavyweight. That Howard shares his predecessor’s core values and political ideology is one reason for such admiration. Another is that Howard grew up during Menzies’ prime ministership, a golden era of sustained propserity.

Howard admires the Menzies government for this economic triumph, which paved the path to comfort for Australia’s middle class.

“The 1950s and 60s were really the first decades of the 20th century, in which vast numbers of middle class Australian families started

Former Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, with the Advisory War Council, which ran from 1940-1945 (State Library of Victoria)

Former Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, with the Advisory War Council, 1940-1945 (State Library of Victoria)

to enjoy a good life. Home ownership levels increased from 50 per cent to 70 per cent, ownership of motor cars improved, the economy was stable – the middle class life really emerged in that time,” he says.

Howard goes on to praise Menzies’ efforts to forge a stronger relationship with Asia after the tragedies of World War II. This is in contrast to Howard’s decision to revitalise the US alliance after former Prime Minister Keating’s focus on Asia.

This foreign policy shift led to what Howard says was one of the hardest choices of his life – the decision to involve Australia in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Like most leaders, both Menzies and Howard made mistakes. Some mistakes are hard to forget, and still leave a bitter aftertaste. While Australia’s commitment ended in 2009, Howard’s decision to involve Australia in the Iraq war angered many and some still believe it to be a breach of international law.

Years on from the Iraq War, Australia finds itself in conflict with the Islamic State, with the Abbott government taking measures to respond to the threat of terrorism.

“I strongly support what the government is doing,” Howard says.

“We must see what is occurring as a threat to Australia, in that the barbarians – and they are barbarians – that are going to put holes in that part of the world, will have a bad impact on neighbouring countries”.

Howard remains a true conservative when it comes to security. Despite suggesting in The Menzies Era that the Liberal Party should be a “broad church”, which accepts both preservation of core values and innovation, defence is not an issue on which Howard offers any apologies.

On other global challenges, such as climate change, Howard can be swayed, with Howard critical of the Abbott government’s current climate change policy.

“What the Liberal Party should do in relation to climate change is examine the evidence and plan policies accordingly. I myself am something of an agnostic on the issue of climate change. I accept that change is probably occurring; I also know enough of the history of the planet to be aware that it has occurred in the past, and that we’ve gone through very different stages,” he says.

“The ‘broad church’ approach requires us to examine all of the evidence, but not perhaps in ways that hurts our own country, in terms of burdens on Australia that other countries aren’t assuming.”

Howard is critical of right and left. The Menzies Era addresses the Labor Party’s ideology, focusing on the governance of the late Gough Whitlam during his prime ministership in the 1970s. The ex-PM’s chapter on Whitlam is called The Great Assumption, which Howard describes as the ALP’s characteristic inability to judge the economic climate.

“The problem with the ALP is that they don’t understand the need for governments to live within their means,” he says.

“The Labor Party is still of the belief that no matter how much you spend of the government’s money, it will suddenly appear again from somewhere. That’s been a problem of most Labor governments – it certainly was a problem for the Rudd/Gillard government.”

Howard's latest book, The Menzies Era (RRP $59.95). HarperCollins Publishers

Howard’s latest book, The Menzies Era (RRP $59.95). HarperCollins Publishers

With Australia Day around the corner, it seems appropriate to dispense with talk of opposing political ideology and focus on what makes this country great. Howard says that we should be proud of our country’s privileges, but also accepting of the faults of our past. He still, however, exudes undying love for his country.

“Australia Day is a reminder of what a wonderful country we live in, a reminder that we should be very grateful for the blessings of this country,” Howard says. “The highlight for me this year was that I reached the age of 75 years in good health. I live in Australia – and if you reach the age of 75, and you have good health, and you live in Australia, you don’t have anything to complain about.

“I very much enjoy living on the lower North Shore of Sydney, and that will continue to do me for many years.”